OL' MAN RIVER - chords and comments
Based on the novel "Show Boat" (1926) by Edna Ferber, a musical in two acts with the same name was made the following year. The intention was to make a "different" musical, and sure they succeded. The composer Jerome Kern caught the idea, and collaborated with Oscar Hammerstein II for the lyrics and Florenz Ziegfeld on production. 22 songs were included, 2 of them with music and lyrics by Joseph E. Howard ("Goodbye, My Lady Love") or Charles K. Harris ("After the Ball"). Only 2 of the original songs have survived *all* the shows and movies through the years: "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and "Ol' Man River". The latter remains a classic lament, more than ninety years after the release, for several reasons.
The musical was "different" because it brought prejudice and social matters to the entertainment scene. "Ol' Man River" was different for three reasons: describing unbearable working conditions without being a "blues", unusual rhythm pattern and the bass solo vocal.
The song rapidly gained popularity, and was during the next decade recorded by several artists. Most prominent are Paul Robeson (who K&H had in mind composing the song), Al Jolson and William Warfield. Lighter and truncated versions vere made by Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Because of it's qualities, it was also recorded by tenor singers and groups. Even women: never heard Judy Garland or Caterina Valente perform this; I expect it to be like *me* grumbling "Wuthering Heights" ...
I bring to you the original libretto. The parts within brackets are sung by a choir, not solo, but they ought to be if the choir doesn't show up for the session. And I leave the "n"-word unchanged, though it's mainly been altered with more political correct phrases: as a white man in the middle east, I accepted folks calling me "khawaga", which is not exactly polite. In 1927, a black man was a "nigger", like Hammerstein wrote down. He still is, and ought to be proud of it. I don't fancy painting the history.
dere's an ol' man called de Mississippi
G Em D
dat's de ol' man dat I'd like to be
what does he care if de world's got troubles
Em C D7 G ...D7
what does he care if de land ain't free
G Em G C
ol' man river dat ol' man river
G C Em Bm
he mus' know sumpin' but don't say nuthin'
he jes' keeps rollin'
D D7 G
he keeps on rollin' along
G Em G C
he don' plant taters he don't plant cotton
Em Bm Em A7
an' dem dat plants' em is soon forgotten
but ol'man river
he jes' keeps rollin' along
Bm Em Bm Em
you an' me we sweat an' strain
Em Bm Em Bm
body all achin' an' wracked wid pain
Bm F#7 Bm F#7
tote dat barge lif' dat bale
Bm F#7 Bm D ...D7
git a little drunk an' you lands in jail
G Em G C
ah gits weary an' sick of tryin'
Em Bm Em A7
ah'm tired of livin' an' skeered of dyin'
but ol' man river
Bm Em D7sus4 D7 G
he jes' keeps rolling' along
In April 1990, operatic dark baritone singer Samuel Ramey did a brilliant interpretation in a concert at Avery Fisher Hall, New York (now "David Geffen Hall"), with Jerry Hadley and Frederica von Stade. Half the concert consisted of songs from "Show Boat". I don't think this is officially recorded for release, and Ramey has never recorded it separately, but YouTube quite often hides rare events. This
must be the ultimate version, even though Ramey is bright white ...