AN IMMENSE LYRIC

It is a rare and supreme lyric that can double-up as a poem. Lyrics tend to rely on words of just one or two syllables. Generally, that way words fit a melody, or a melody fits the words. Also, songs rely a lot on repetition which sometimes makes reading the lyric without the music sometimes boring.

However, watching TV the other night I discovered by accident an immense lyric from a time and place I’d never considered or studied before. The TV narrator was analysing the sections of the lyric to Old Man River, a song about racism, slavery and despair and written in the first person. A song comparing the struggles of a conscious mind to the ease with which the natural world just flows along.

The song was from a 1920’s musical called Showboat. I hate musicals with a vengeance normally. They are not my genre. But this one, a song I had heard a few times in the past and completely dismissed as old fart rubbish proves how totally wrong I was.  I was wrong because this was not a song from one of those all singing, all dancing generic meaningless (to me) musicals that are just an annoying noise.

The critics back then got it right. One wrote, ‘Here we come to a completely new genre – the musical play as distinguished from musical comedy…the play was the thing, and everything else was subservient to that play.”

Jerome Kern wrote this lyric. It could be an anthem for those it was written for. Its beauty is its simplicity. It stands alone without melody. In fact, if I were producing it as a standalone song today I don’t think I’d want any musical accompaniment. Reading it makes me shiver. Hope anyone reading this ends up feeling the same.

Dere’s an ol’ man called de Mississippi

Dat’s de ol’ man dat I’d like to be!

What does he care if de world’s got troubles?

What does he care if de land ain’t free? 

Ol’ man river, that ol’ man river

He must know something, but he don’t say nothing

That ol’ man river, he just keep rollin’ along

He don’t plant ‘taters, he don’t plant cotton

‘Cause them that plants them is soon forgotten

And ol’ man river, he just keeps rollin’ along

‘Cause you and me, we sweat and strain

Body all achin’ and wracked with pain

Tote that barge, lift that bale

Get a little drunk and you land in jail

But I get weary and sick of tryin’

‘Cause I’m tired of livin’ but I’m scared of dyin’

That ol’ man river, he just keeps rollin’ along

You and me, we sweat and strain

Body all achin’ and wracked with pain

Tote that barge, lift that bale

Get a little drunk and you land in jail

But I get weary and sick of tryin’

‘Cause I’m tired of livin’ but I’m scared of dyin’

That ol’ man river, he just keeps rollin’ along

Sadly, I cannot find a complete YouTube version. Maybe the rich all-white theatre audience back then didn’t want to hear these words.

Colored folks work on de Mississippi,

Colored folks work while de white folks play,

Pullin’ dose boats from de dawn to sunset,

Gittin’ no rest till de judgement day.

Don’t look up

An’ don’t look down,

You don’ dast make

De white boss frown.

Bend your knees

An’bow your head,

An’ pull date rope

Until you’ dead.

Let me go ‘way from the Mississippi,

Let me go ‘way from de white man boss,

Show me dat stream called de river Jordan,

Dat’s de ol’ stream dat I long to cross.

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39 thoughts on “AN IMMENSE LYRIC

  1. I had to go searching there because I couldn’t remember the name of the original artist who sang it in the film – Paul Robeson. I remember sitting watching this with my dad who did end up with a tear in his eyes as we watched. I don’t think I got, back then, the implications of what was being said in the song. He would have had to explain that to me, to explain his tears. Incredible to think that it was so long ago, how much and how little has changed. Someone commented here on the language, which is now frowned upon, with justification. I don’t know if what you were looking for is this https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=eh9WayN7R-s which does include the last verse. I found myself shocked, when listening, that the words included ones we would, thankfully, never now use. Maybe what’s more surprising, when I come to think about it, is that so-called ‘race’ is still an issue in the world. As some woman commented on a video I saw recently, ‘About time we realised there is only one race. Pigmentation is not race.’ (paraphrased but so true). The singer, above, does justice to the song but I will forever remember it as belonging to Paul Robeson, even if I don’t always remember his name. Thanks for sharing this, George, and taking me back down memory lane. I, for one, cannot abide that human rights are determined by some arbitrary measure, which is one of the reasons the whole Brexit fiasco bothers me so much. ‘We’re aw Jock Tamson’s bairns.’

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    1. I can’t believe I didn’t find that one. I did go through 3 of Robeson’s versions. Having studied music for ages I overlooked this genre and dismissed it. This one works simply because the lyric uses the natural world we are all meant to share but only just a few are free to claim it as their own. I’ve never done a cover version of any song because it feels like plagiarism to me, but I’d like to update this lyric to modern times and record it as the human rights issue won’t go away. I won’t because of copyright issues but it has got me thinking. If only I had the time. I’ve just got too many projects going on now. Here’s a similar song that has caused my own dad to shed a tear. It’s one of the songs that first got me into the lyrical side of music. I like the way Randy Newman uses a river as a backdrop; a little blond girl who’s lost her way as the Nazi’s; and the first person old man in the lyric as the Jews. Randy Newman – In Germany Before the War; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tXYIN2nowrE
      I am lucky to have grown up with parents who are passionate about human rights so I know exactly what you mean. As my dad says, ‘Come the revolution’.

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      1. I don’t recollect ever having heard this before. It’s very haunting, kind of scary, almost. I would never have gotten that back story from listening to it without you saying. Isn’t music incredible? Not only for the feelings it can arouse on hearing but also for what can be communicated in composition even without words. You must love your chosen path. 🙂

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      2. The cleverness of songwriters is the thing I am happily addicted to. Given I couldn’t even get it together working in a cafe I had to do the only thing I know. So far it’s going well – fingers crossed.

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  2. I agree. I never had patience for musicals, even as a child (the endless dance numbers, in particular). Many musicals are basically one big heap of cotton candy to me–all fluff that may be sweet for one bite, but not for thirty. And your point about lyrics NOT always being poetry is very apt to me. I wasn’t horribly keen about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel for literature. As I told a friend of mine–and I think you’ll appreciate this–a song is more than words. A song is a sum of parts: the language, the instruments used, the harmonies created, etc. (Now I’m thinking I wrote all this to you already. My apologies if I did.) And as you say, lyrics also often use refrains and rhymes for the sake of the song, which is fine…when it’s a song. As stand-alone language, not so much.

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    1. I agree with every word you wrote. If the intention is to write a song with an epic lyric – the hardest thing to write and I’ve not achieved it yet – the music supporting it is the thing that will make it epic. I suppose I’m saying a lyric has to get dressed to go out.

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  3. This is sharp. This was a standard of my parent’s generation, never realised its political/civil rights context before. Interested in collaborating on a song some time? I have some lyrics I’m looking for a home for…Jim

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    1. Collaboration is a thing I have in the planning for the business. Seriously, I can’t do it now, I’m in the process of upgrading the website and may have to take a couple of weeks away from blogging as it’s my living, but yes, I am very interested. If you are happy to hang in there for a time this sounds interesting to me. Thanks for the message. Best of luck and thanks.

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  4. It’s interesting how the music often obscures the lyric. I have been seeking out some Texas songs for a wedding I am invited to in the Spring. I have heard several of these songs all my life, even though I am Canadian and didn’t think I was much of a country-western fan. I didn’t pay much attention to the lyrics even when I was singing them.

    One song is The YellowRose of Texas. This song is not about a flower. It is about a country boy’s love for a Chinese woman and how he is discovering this love when it may be too late.Yet if he survives he is going back to find her no matter what anyone else thinks. That lyric doesn’t get much play.

    El Paso – the love of a cowpoke for a Mexican woman.

    While some of the audience are doing the Texas two-step the musicians are trying to move them along in a different direction.

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    1. This is fascinating. I’ve heard of The Yellow Rose of Texas but never heard it. I don’t know El Paso. I shall go on YouTube straight away. Thank you for this prompt to get me exploring.

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    1. 100% true. Not just economically. It feels like reading a history book in the present, knowing what’s coming next but not wanting to accept it. Or am I just miserable? Guess we wait and see.

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      1. I try to stay hopeful and believe things will get better (though they may first get worse). I do think racial tensions get worse when the economy is bad because people need someone to blame for their problems. It’s almost like things are coming to a head now with society’s as well as environmental problems. Maybe the coming years will open people’s eyes to how ridiculous their prejudices are. I’m just an incurable optimist lol.

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      2. An optimist discussing world affairs with a fatalist and discovering they both agree. Perhaps we should rule the world between us. I’d like to rule the part where it doesn’t rain too much and the sun shines.

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      3. Agreed, Lord Zoolon. I would much rather have a fatalist than a rationalist as my co-ruler of the world, though I’d like some sunny places to rule over too. I guess we’ll just let the frigid lands run rampant with anarchy.

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      4. I’ll settle for southern France, Italy and Scandinavia (for when my hay fever and dust allergies get bad and the girls there will hopefully be impressed if they hear someone call me Lord Zoolon) if that’s OK.

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