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'Ol' Man River': An American Masterpiece

When composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II teamed up in the mid-1920s to write Show Boat, a groundbreaking musical about life along the Mississippi River, they created one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs of the 20th century -- "Ol' Man River." This week marks the 75th anniversary of the most enduring recording of the song -- rendered by the actor, singer and civil rights icon Paul Robeson.

Kern and Hammerstein wrote "Ol' Man River" with Robeson in mind, says Murray Horwitz, director of the American Film Institute Silver Theater and Cultural Center. Despite the racism prevalent at the time, the African-American actor had managed to create a sensation on the stage with his 1925 performance in Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones. Robeson's success was a mirror of the determined defiance in the face of oppressive circumstances expressed in the song.

But by the time Show Boat premiered in December 1927, Robeson was committed to other projects and unable to participate. He did go on to star in the 1928 London production of the musical, and in June of that year, he released his recording of "Ol' Man River." Sung in Robeson's rich, distinctive baritone, it has become for many the definitive version of the song.

Horwitz says that a strong part of the song's appeal lies in its insistent rhythm. "The pulse is like the pulse of the river itself," he told NPR's Scott Simon in a recent interview. Sung by the character Joe, an African-American laborer in the Deep South, the song's lyrics ("I'm tired of living and scared of dying/ But ol' man river, he just keeps rolling along") are an expression both of hope and despair, Horwitz says.

"As in the best of musical theater works, what's happening in the music tells you something different than what's happening in the lyric," he says. "Because even though the lyric is somewhat despairing, the music is absolutely exultant in the end. And so even though the character Joe is being realistic about his prospects, something inside him is still aspiring, still triumphant. And I think that's one of the things that makes it a big hit."

Though "Ol' Man River" became Robeson's signature tune, he wasn't the first famous crooner to record the song. In April 1928, a young Bing Crosby released an up-tempo version, recorded with bandleader Paul Whiteman, that became a chart-topper. Others who have recorded the standard include Tony Bennett (in the 1960s) and Frank Sinatra (in the 1940s). In fact, Nancy Sinatra has called it her favorite recording of her late father's voice.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.