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: