Thursday, January 25, 2007

Paul Robeson's Big Hollywood Moment

Paul Robeson was the first Black American actor to make films where his characters had dignity and intelligence. He was also one of the first actors of any background to have final cut approval on a film. After inadvertently making a pro-colonialist film in Great Britain for the Korda brothers called "Sanders of The River aka Bosambo" (!) Robeson had tired of playing stereotypes. So why then did he agree to do Show Boat (1936) for legendary director James Whale? He had asked for a huge sum of money thinking they would balk which they did not. More importantly it gave him a chance to define, for cinematic history, the words to Jerome Kern's "Old Man River." This song would follow him his entire career as he changed the lyrics from one of indolence and stereotypes (the original lyrics from the 20's actually feature the 'n' word) to defiance. The changes in Robeson's concert renditions of the song shift the portrayal of Joe away from a resigned and sad character who is susceptible to the forces of his world, to one who is timelessly empowered and able to persevere through even the most trying circumstances.

All politics aside, I'm glad Robeson had an Olympian moment like this on the silver screen with his friend Hattie McDaniel. We have the benefit of hindsight and so did Robeson who would play Othello three times and who's great legacy will never vanish.

"Paul Robeson stood for everything I believe in."
-Tony Benn

Robeson's changes in the lyrics of the song are as follows:

1. Instead of "There's an ol' man called de Mississippi, / That's de ol' man that I'd like to be...", Robeson sang "There's an ol' man called the Mississippi, / That's the ol' man I don't like to be"..."

2. Instead of "Tote that barge! / Lift that bale! / Git a little drunk, / An' you land in jail...", Robeson sang "Tote that barge and lift dat bale!/ You show a little grit and / You lands in jail..."

3. 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 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!"

In recitals and in several of his many recordings of the song, Robeson also omitted the controversial section "N words all work on de Mississippi...", etc., with its middle portion "Don't look up/ An' don't look down/ You don't dast make / De white boss frown", etc., as well as its concluding "Lemme go ' way from de Mississippi/ Lemme go ' way from de white man boss, etc." . However, Robeson did include a portion of these lyrics in the 1932 4-record 78 RPM album of selections from Show Boat.


Blogger Dan L. said...


Hey, your most recent and great post...whatever it was (sorry, did not see it), was taking forever to load on my screen tonight, so I must apologize and say...I cannot really comment. But...

...As for other past stuff, I recall a clip on Mr. Ponti. Did you know (you do) his son is the director of the big orchestra in San Bernardino? I have wanted to go see some of that, so near to my home, and they have had Meet 'n Greets with Sophia Loren, but never did...yet. I love Sophia Loren, and I read the book "In the Arena" by Mr. Heston about his movie with her, she is the bomb, though I do not agree with her philosphy.


--Dan L.

7:17 AM  
Blogger lryicsgrl said...

Thanks for sharing your know how I feel about Paul and that magnificent to YouTube now to find if there is a clip from Porgy and Bess....

12:57 PM  
Blogger SuperAmanda said...

Hi Dan,
happy 2007! Oh how I enjoy that classic TV stuff and catching up with all your photos. I think you meant Brigitte Bardot not Sophia Loren. Sophia has always had a wonderful Italian way of looking at things, Bardot has become very right wing in the past few decades (not Republican or conservative but a Euro-facist) Unless i missed something, Sophia's philosophy would no turn anyone off.
-Super Amanda

4:00 PM  
Blogger Dan L. said...

A clarification on my part may do well...

"Their first marriage caused huge controversy in Italy because Ponti was still married to his first wife and the Catholic Church would not let them divorce."

This quote from:

...encapsulates the reason behind my previous comment, though in no way simply explains the complexity of it all. It is a deep issue. I love Sophia Loren and her work.

I think Bardot is sourdough....from what little I know of her these days.

--Dan L.

2:18 AM  
Blogger SuperAmanda said...

Oh, Ponti's first wife actually wanted to end her union to Ponti so Carlo and Sophia could marry very early on in the latter's relationship but the Vatican had very antiquated laws that made it impossible. The laws were eventually overturned a few years later. It was Ponti's first wife Giuliana, a lawyer who advised them both to move to paris to gain French citizenship and marry proper.

2:34 AM  
Blogger SuperAmanda said...

hahaha "Sourdough!"

2:34 AM  
Blogger Gary said...

Well, I really enjoyed reading about Mr. Robeson, I had seen Showboat a long time ago and was vaquely familiar with the song, but have a much greater appreciation of his artistry, particularly his lyrical improvements to the song. Thank you.

4:11 PM  

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