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Paul Robeson – Ol’ Man River

Paul Robeson
Paul Robeson

Bill Scott on one of the greats of working class culture

Ol’ man river, Dat ol’ man river
He mus’ know sumpin’, But don’t say nuthin’,
He jes’ keeps rollin’, He keeps on rollin’ along.

He don’ plant taters, He don’t plant cotton,
An’ dem dat plants’em is soon forgotten,
But ol ‘man river, He jes keeps rollin’along.

You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain,
Body all achin’ an’ racked wid pain,
Tote dat barge! Lif’ dat bale!
Git a little drunk, An’ you land in jail.

Ah gits weary, An’ sick of tryin’
Ah’m tired of livin’, An’ skeered of dyin’,
But ol’ man river, He jes’keeps rolling’ along.
.
Let me go ‘way from the Mississippi,
Let me go ‘way from de white man boss;
Show me dat stream called de river Jordan,
Dat’s de ol’ stream dat I long to cross.

O’ man river,, Dat ol’ man river,
He mus’ know sumpin’, But don’t say nuthin’
He jes’ keeps rollin’, He keeps on rollin’ along.

 

You might well ask how a show-tune written in a white lyricist’s approximation of 19th Century US Southern States Negro patois could ever be considered “radical song”.

The lyrics of Ol’ Man River were written in 1927 for the musical “Showboat” by Oscar Hammerstein. Hammerstein, who went on to write many more successful musicals in partnership with Richard Rodgers consistently wrote anti-racist themes into his work – particularly in the musicals “South Pacific” and “Carmen Jones”.

Thus despite “Showboat” being a commercial musical based on a, then, best-selling novel it had, for its time, radical and progressive themes. It questioned the Southern States’ “miscegenation” laws that forbade marriage between Black and White Americans.  It also bestowed a stoic dignity on the character of “Joe” a black ex-slave who acts as the musical’s “Greek chorus”. Such themes and serious roles for Black actors were new to American theatre and saw the otherwise highly successful musical’s performance banned in parts of the South.

So far so good but a song about stoic acceptance of one’s lot in life is hardly radical. But that can depend on the singer and the performer most associated with this particular song was black activist Paul Robeson.

Robeson, the son of a freed slave, was the first black man to qualify in law (cum laude) from Rutgers College in the USA and the first African American to play as an All American college football player.  He was also a world-renowned singer & actor, a leading civil rights activist and socialist. Robeson also had strong associations with the workers movement in Britain and Scotland.

Robeson first came to Britain to star in the London production of Show Boat in 1928. While performing there he met a group of unemployed miners who had walked to London to draw attention to the hardship South Wales had endured in the aftermath of the General Strike. This began a long association between Robeson and the miners union.

Robeson settled in Britain during the 30s and starred in a number of British films returning to the US to star in the first film version of Showboat (1936). He also starred in a number of plays in Britain such as Eugene O’Neil’s “Emperor Jones” including one production at Edinburgh’s Playhouse.  In 1938 Robeson sang in Glasgow at a benefit concert for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Robeson also travelled to Madrid that year.  When he sang at the front for Republican troops the guns on both sides fell silent to listen to his magnificent bass voice.

1938 was also significant in that from that year forwards Robeson performed a version of Ol’ Man River that was radically different from Hammerstein’s original. Except for very minor changes the lyrics of the song as Robeson performed it in the 1936 film version of the show were those that Hammerstein wrote in 1927. But, when appearing on Broadway, Robeson and Hammerstein had violent arguments when, during a rehearsal, Robeson changed the line, “Tote that barge! / Lift that bale! / Git a little drunk, / An’ you land in jail…”, to ““Tote that barge and lift dat bale!/ You show a little grit / And you lands in jail..”.

Hammerstein objected to any mere performer, even one as gifted as Robeson, questioning his artistic creation. Robeson conversely objected to what he saw as a demeaning portrayal of Negroes getting drunk as an escape when they were more likely to be punished by the white “boss” for showing spirit and talking back. Robeson persisted though and sang his new lyrics in performance

However by 1938, and probably inspired by the resistance to Fascism shown by the Spanish and international working class,  Robeson made far greater changes to the lyrics that completely changed its meaning and delivery.

Instead of “Ah gits weary / An’ sick of tryin’; / Ah’m tired of livin’ / An skeered of dyin’, / But Ol’ Man River, / He jes’ keeps rolling along!”, Robeson now sang, “But I keeps laffin’/ Instead of cryin’ / I must keep fightin’; / Until I’m dyin’, / And Ol’ Man River, / He’ll just keep rollin’ along!

The changes made by Robeson shift the portrayal of Joe away from the resigned, stoic character who resents, but ultimately has to accept, the White Boss world that he lives in, to a character who will persevere, however great the challenge, to change that world.  Moreover Robeson not only changes the character of Joe but also the metaphorical nature of the “River” that he sings about. The river changes from an impassive, uncaring fixture of life to a massive force of nature representing the flow of time that will ultimately sweep away the White Boss system and the unjust laws like miscegenation that underpin it. In a few words Robeson transformed the song from tragic acceptance to heroic resistance. That’s entirely fitting because it was also how Robeson henceforth  lived his own life.

“The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative,” – Paul Robeson

Robeson first became a hero to the British mining community, in 1940 when he starred in the film Proud Valley as an American sailor stranded in Cardiff who finds work in a Welsh colliery.  In a story, suggested by Robeson himself, his character then leads a delegation of miners in marching to London to demand fairer working conditions from the Government.

In 1949 Abe Moffat, Communist  leader of the Scottish Miners Federation, invited Robeson to Edinburgh where he performed in a benefit concert for the miners at the Usher Hall. Afterwards Robeson visited Newcraighall pit canteen and sang the great American organizing song, “Joe Hill”, for the miners there.

Because of Robeson’s left-wing views the U.S. government denied him the right to travel (1952-57) and he was blacklisted from performing. Called before the House Un-American Activities Committee to repudiate his views and told that if he was a communist he might as well live in Russia he said –My father was a slave and my people died to build this country, and I’m going to stay right here and have a part of it, just like you”.

Robeson was subsequently banned from TV and performing in theatres or concert venues – not by law but by their owners. Even Robeson’s film and records were withdrawn from circulation to deny him royalties. But the Scottish miners were amongst those who did not forget Robeson’s past generosity.  They and the South Wales area rallied to his cause by staging pithead collections which raised several hundred pounds to send to the near destitute performer and his family.

Denied his passport Robeson defied the authorities and managed to participate in the 1957 Welsh Miners’ Eisteddfod, by singing via a transatlantic telephone link. In the concert’s finale the Miners movingly responded by singing -“There’ll Be A Welcome in the Hillside”.  He defied the US authorities again that same year when he sang from a park in Washington (State) to a paying audience of 40,000 over the border in Canada.  After an international campaign – called appropriately, “Let Robeson Sing!” – the Supreme Court was finally forced to reinstate Robeson’s passport in 1958.

Robeson then toured internationally both singing and acting (including singing opera in Moscow and playing Othello at Stratford Upon Avon).  But one debt was outstanding.  In 1960 he returned to Scotland at the request of Abe Moffat’s daughter, Ella Egan. He first sang from the Queen’s Park Bandstand to the crowd who gathered at Glasgow’s May Day Rally and later that month appeared in front of a rapturous audience of 20,000 at the Scottish Miners Gala in Holyrood Park. It was to be his last public appearance in Scotland as, scarred by the racism and blacklisting he had experienced, he suffered from depression and was a virtual recluse between 1963 and his death in 1976.

However Robeson’s influence permeated the Scottish, and American, folk revivals and the 1960’s Black Civil Rights Movement. Robeson’s long and happy association with the Scottish workers movement was also remembered fondly by his son, Paul Robeson Jr., when he accepted the invitation of Colin Fox and the Edinburgh May Day Organising Committee to visit Scotland and speak at Edinburgh’s May Day Rally in 2002. One can only hope that Robeson, his singing and his version of ”Ol Man River” go on to influence further generations of black and working class activists.