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Who Should Sing 'Ol' Man River'?

In the mid 1920s, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote a song called "Ol' Man River" that combined the seriousness of a Negro spiritual with the crowd-pleasing power of a Broadway anthem. Inspired, according to Kern, by the voice of the African American singer Paul Robeson, "Ol' Man River" went on to great success in the Broadway musical Show Boat and became a signature song for Robeson, who turned the tune towards his own goals as an activist. But the story of "Ol' Man River" goes deeper than the curiosity of a song recorded by so many in so many different ways. For at the heart of Oscar Hammerstein's lyric is a clear-eyed vision of the black experience in American history. Anyone-black or white-who thought they should sing "Ol' Man River" has had to deal with the charged racial content of the song. Who Should Sing "Ol' Man River"? traces this aspect of "Ol' Man River's" course through American history, an at-times high-stakes journey where the African American struggle for dignity and equality came down to the lyrics of a popular song. However beyond Robeson and Show Boat, "Ol' Man River" also had a long and rich life in the world of popular music. An astonishing variety of singers and musicians from across the musical spectrum-from pop to jazz, opera to doo wop, rhythm and blues to gospel to reggae-all chose to perform or record it. Who Should Sing "Ol' Man River"?: The Lives of an American Song traces out the performance history of this remarkable song by listening closely to over two hundred recorded and filmed versions dating from the song's debut in 1927 to the present. Many famous pop singers made "Ol' Man River" a signature song; among them Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Judy Garland: white performers who took up a lyric told from the black perspective. Important jazz artists such as Bix Biederbecke, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Count Basie, and Keith Jarrett all played it. Opera singers-black and white, male and female-took it up as well. And a slew of surprising names from the first decades of rock and roll also recorded this inescapable tune, among them Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, the Temptations, Cher, and Rod Stewart.
Product Details

Table of Contents

1. Some Questions for "Ol' Man River" ; 2. Robeson's Revisions ; 3. Ol' Man Rhythm ; 4. Ol' Man Parody ; 5. Ol' Man Easy Listening ; 6. Ol' Man Metaphor ; 7. Sinatra's Way ; 8. The High Season on Records ; 9. The High Season on Television ; 10. Sons and Daughters of Joe ; A Select List of Recorded Versions of "Ol' Man River" ; Acknowledgements ; Notes ; Index

About the Author

Todd Decker is Associate Professor of Music at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical (Oxford, 2013) and Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire and Jazz (2011, winner of the Best First Book Award from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies). He has lectured widely on American music, including at the Library of Congress, and his articles have appeared in Music, Sound and the Moving Image, The Journal of Musicology, Daedalus, and Contemporary Theatre Review.


A deep, wide, and thoroughly fascinating history of one of America's greatest songs, with surprises around every bend. * JAMES KAPLAN, author of Frank: The Voice * Todd Decker's Who Should Sing 'Ol' Man River'? is an eloquent and moving work charting the performance history of one of America's greatest and most controversial songs. Lyrically written and persuasively argued, the book transports the reader through a kaleidoscope of performers from Paul Robeson to Ray Charles, female and male, black and white, who wanted to make the song their own. Read about and listen to the performances with enormous pleasure but make no mistake this book is as much about the 'singing of the American experience of race' as it is about the song. * JORDAN GOODMAN, author of Paul Robeson: A Watched Man *

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