Ol’ Man River
(Words Oscar Hammerstein II, music Jerome Kern)
Analysed by Robert Walton
Why does the song Ol’ Man River sound so ancient? It’s much more than just Hammerstein’s brilliant lyrics, although they obviously help. The simple answer is because of the primitive pentatonic scale (black notes of the piano) which occurs in most of the early music cultures, e.g. in China around 2000 BC. It’s sometimes called the Scottish scale because the bagpipes have a similar tuning - C, D, E, G and A. (Like my ringing chimes). It’s the main chorus of Ol’ Man River that is purely pentatonic using the 5 note scale. Hence the prehistoric atmosphere it creates. It couldn’t be a better setting for such a magnificent tune. Note the built-in syncopation on the word “River” and every third note of each bar in the chorus.
So from China, let’s follow a possible musical journey. First to Africa for the rhythm, America for syncopation, developed by Stephen Foster, a touch of jazz and finally to Jerome Kern who couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate format. If you speed up Kern’s melody, it could be one of the first of the extended “fanfares” before 20th Century Fox got in on the act! But there’s also an extra special tenderness in the main tune at bar 5. In the key of C on the word “JUST keeps rollin’” (Dm9, 11) the effect is overwhelming if you freeze “just”. Play, sing, hum, whistle or just listen to this grand tune. It’s a most all-encompassing experience.
The bridge starts “You and me we sweat and strain”. Like all bridges it begins as the perfect contrast, but when it rejoins the main melody it slips back in, just like from a verse. So in fact there are two verses.
But who first sang this comparatively simple 32 bar popular song? Jules Bledsoe introduced it in the 1927 musical “Showboat” and also the first film version in 1929. However the best-known singer of it was Paul Robeson in the second film version of 1936. The popular third film version of “Showboat” was in 1951 featuring William Warfield. In the film “Till the Clouds Roll By”, Frank Sinatra gave the song an entirely new feeling and freedom, getting away from the predictable basso profondo performances.
My favourite version of Ol’ Man River has got to be the most versatile artist of them all, Gordon MacRae, a legitimate baritone/crooner who sings a very gimmick-less arrangement with the Carmen Dragon Orchestra. (NZ Maori baritone Inia Te Wiata made a fine job of it too). And only recently I came across an outstanding traditional version of the song, sung, but “not crooned” by Dick Haymes. Big bands considered it too sluggish, hence their tendency to play it presto like Ted Heath, when it’s asking to be a medium swing.
Ol’ Man River is unquestionably one of the most moving songs ever written - a colossus in its category! A natural waterway even today carries the vital ingredients of life itself - work, play, family, culture, faith and love. The Mississippi River brilliantly describes the backdrop of the long-suffering African-Americans. Bringing the River Jordan into the mix was a clever move. In answer to Tennyson’s “The Brook” (“Men may come, men may go but I go on forever”), Hammerstein came up with “he just keeps rollin’ along”. Quoting from St. Augustine’s Confessions being “tired of life and afraid of dying” is a clear sign that life was a struggle. In spite of all this, it’s a universal message of hope and optimism.
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