Old Man River (Paul Robeson)

1952. Old Man River (Paul Robeson)
Music written by Jerome Kern, lyrics written by Oscar Hammerstein II

Born in 1898, Paul Robeson was the son of an escaped slave. He attended university, graduated as a lawyer from Columbia Law School, and began a career as an actor and singer. By the mid-1930s, he was world-famous for his roles on stage and film, and his rich bass-baritone voice.

He was also a socialist who fought for economic and racial equality. By the late 1940s, his political and activist views and speeches got him into trouble during the McCarthy era. Essentially blacklisted by his own government, recording companies would not allow him studio access and they no longer sold recordings he had already made. He found fewer and fewer venues in which he could perform.

His passport was revoked in 1950, ending his international career.

At that time, a passport was not required to cross the border into Canada. He had been invited by the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers to sing at a concert at the Peace Arch, located near the US/Canada border. He had accepted the invitation. The U.S. State Department, on learning of the visit, used legislation originally passed during the war years to prevent Robeson’s Vancouver arrival on the grounds that “during the existence of (a) national emergency” citizens of the U.S. could be stopped from leaving or entering the country.

So on May 18, 1952, because he could not pass into Canada to perform, a setup was arranged: through a long-distance telephone hookup relayed to the PA system, he stood on the back of a flatbed truck at the Peace Arch accompanied on the piano by Lawrence Brown. Robeson had to remain on the American side, but he performed to an estimated crowd of 30,000 Canadians and about 5,000 Americans.

The performance included labor union songs, spirituals and a performance of his signature song Ol’ Man River, which I’ve posted here.

Note regarding the song lyrics: Old Man River was originally written for, and performed in, the 1927 stage musical Showboat. Paul Robeson first sang it in the 1936 film version of that show. In that show, and after that show, he changed many of the lyrics. I won’t detail all of those changes; those who are interested can listen to very early versions on Youtubes to hear the differences. But I will give a few examples.

Instead of “niggers all work”, he sang “darkies all work”, then later “lots of folks work”.

Instead of “Tote that barge! / Lift that bale! / Git a little drunk, / An’ you land in jail…”, he sang “Tote that barge and lift dat bale!/ You show a little grit / And you lands in jail …”

Instead of “Ah gits weary / An’ sick of tryin’; / Ah’m tired of livin’ / An skeered of dyin'”, he sang “But I keeps laffin’/ Instead of cryin’ / I must keep fightin’; / Until I’m dyin'”

Thanks to Marcus Paul Duskin, whose post on my feed about visiting the Peace Arch today inspired me to research the info here and post the song.