Ol’ Man River

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Ol’ Man River

Lyrics By Oscar Hammerstein II  Music By Jerome Kern

Joe, a hardworking stevedore, acknowledges the slow, steady flow of the Mississippi River and notes its indifference to the hardships of life, particularly for Black Americans. Part anthem, part prayer and part commentary on the narrative of Show Boat, “Ol’ Man River” is the core of the musical and the show’s most famous song.

“The melody of ‘Ol’ Man River’ was conceived immediately after my first hearing Paul Robeson’s speaking voice,” Kern later wrote, having seen Robeson perform in a non-musical play. Robeson became the definitive voice behind this stunning anthem. His recording of the song hit the charts after he originated the role of Joe on the West End in 1928; he went on to reprise his role in the 1936 film adaptation. Robeson, a staunch advocate for workers and human rights, would sing the song at concerts and events for decades to come. The song became an American standard and went on to be covered by countless recognizable names, including Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, The Temptations, Tony Bennett and Al Jolson. In September, 1982, Jimmy Smith’s recording of “Ol’ Man River” entered the Billboard 100.

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