Ol' Man River, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, is from the 1927 musical Show Boat. Sung by Joe, a Black American stevedore on a floating theatre, the song sets the hardships suffered by African Americans against the ever-flowing and uncaring Mississippi River. Jerome Kern wrote the melody using the pentatonic scale that forms the basis of most spirituals, and clearly intended it to echo that tradition.
Kern and Hammerstein intended the song to be performed at a suitably slow tempo, but the earliest recording, from the year the show opened, treated it as a jaunty 1920s dance tune. The archetypal performance is by Paul Robeson in the 1936 film version of Show Boat. This includes a verse that understandably caused a problem for many later performers, beginning "Darkies all work on the Mississippi, Darkies all work while de white folks play"; this was only a shade better than the "Niggers" originally used by Hammerstein. Most performers have chosen to leave out this section altogether, including William Warfield, playing the part of Joe in the 1951 remake of the film. Paul Robeson himself omitted the verse in all his later recordings; and in keeping with his political stance he made other changes to the lyrics to give the song more of a defiant spirit.
Other interesting versions include:
Performances by choirs are surprisingly few and far between, but here are three that offer some variety:
Sunday 26 November
North Bristol Arts Trail, St Michael & All Angels Church, Gloucester Rd, BS7 8NT. 4.15-5.45
Saturday 9 December
Charity Carol Singing, Clifton Down Shopping Centre, 3 p.m. - 4 p.m.
Monday 11 December
Radio Bristol / Bristol Post Carol Concert (Lord Mayor's appeal), Colston Hall, 7.00 p.m.
Saturday 16 December
A Gurt Noel (our official do), St Albans Church, afternoon rehearsals, concert at 7.30 p.m.
Friday 22 December
Carol Singing, Bristol Heart Institute, BRI, 12.30-1.30 pm
25 February 2018
Innovation 216, St Georges (Morning)
28 February and 1 March 2018
The Hall on the Hill, St Georges
3 March 2018
CoMA, The Festival of Contemporary Music for All
2 - 6 May 2018
Calella Festival, Costa de Barcelona
7 July 2018
Summer Spectaular featuring WWI Suite, St Georges