Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Who Should Sing "Ol' Man River" by Todd Decker

From the publisher:

In Who Should Sing "Ol' Man River"? The Lives of an American Song, author Todd Decker examines how the song has shaped, and been shaped by, the African American experience. Yet "Ol' Man River" also transcends both its genre and original conception as a song written for an African American male. Beyond musical theater, this Broadway ballad has been reworked in musical genres from pop to jazz, opera to doo wop, rhythm and blues to gospel to reggae. Pop singers such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Judy Garland made "Ol' Man River" one of their signature songs. Jazz artists such as Bix Biederbecke, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Count Basie, and Keith Jarrett have all played "Ol' Man River," as have stars of the rock and roll era, such as Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, the Temptations, Cher, and Rod Stewart. Black or white, male or female-anyone who sings "Ol' Man River" must confront and consider its charged racial content and activist history."

Honestly, this is a fascinating piece of ethnomusicology penned by a passionate expert who excavates the history of a controversial song. Yes, the song’s history, form and function are extrapolated; but, more interesting still, is the song’s varied appropriation.

Rhetorically, we are asked who should sing Ol' Man River: especially as it worked its way as emblem into a wide spectrum of rebellion, anarchy and cultural consciousness. Vernacular, lyrical changes, slow denouements and show stopping octave-leaping flourished finishes --- all are at the center of one of the most interesting studies I have read in an age. Who has the right? And why is it sung again and again by singers from all walks of life, in all genres and forms, from all races?

To add, it speaks greatly to the historical context of the show and the ripples and shudders it spread through the Civil Rights movement. Decker writes: "  Every performed version of Ol Man River negotiates the color line that divided black from white and white from black in the years of legal racial segregation. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then, that the height of the civil rights movement—from the late 1950s  to the close of the 1960s saw the greatest proliferation of performed and recorded versions in the song’s history.”

In the context of Show Boat (1927), the stevedore Joe stands in for a greek chorus with his other pulley-levers. The song is reprised more than 4 times during the almost three hour operetta, concluding to emphasize how the world has changed --the days of the Show Boats are over, but the world continues--- as do the travails and triumphs of Americans--- as does the lives of Magnolia, Gaylord, Kim and the central cast of the show. The melody is played with and inverted to act as the musical infrastructure of the show: at times happy and sad but, like the currents of its eponymous river, strained and fluid throughout.

I couldn’t help thinking about my relationship with the song. I am, of course, an unabashed broadway fanatic and the popular 1993 revival of Show Boat with Cloris Leachman, Mark Jacoby, Rebecca Luker, et al. was one of my first stage experiences. I loved Ol Man River. I can see the stage before me now: the bails and barges in the elaborate set (see the documentary on Garth Drabinsky’s excess to learn just how elaborate that set was) and I can see Joe leaning there, his low baritone rumbling across the stage and into the seats. The auditorium vibrated. Another instance: I am sitting in Roy Thomson Hall to the thunderous applause reaching Colm Wilkinson at the end of one of his many concerts. While I secretly hope that he’ll impart This is the Moment on his set, he instead gifts us with Ol Man River.

It's a memorable song: memorable enough that each person who hears it stamps upon it their personal experience. Yet, it is not without its controversy.  Along with containing (in its original lyrical form) racial slurs, it has been shirked by artists of both colour. Speaking to one critic, Decker notes: "…Far from alone among black ( as well as white) intellectuals in thinking Ol’ Man River would be best consigned to oblivion.”
But it never was resigned or shelved and it is here, in the study, we begin an extensive look at the too-many-to-count renditions of a standard that has lived many lives, touched many and stood in for experience. It offends some, empowers others but never, like its famed river, has a completely smooth ride.

It has been sped up for doo wop, and slowed down to a ballad, labelled incorrectly as a piece of spiritual history, it has been enhanced with big bands, slurred from the distinctive voice of Louis Armstrong and crooned sadly by Judy Garland. It has undergone tempo and key changes. And SO MANY LYRIC CHANGES-- often tweaked to the agenda of the performer. Speaking to the firebrand Paul Robeson's changes, Decker explains: "“Tote dat barg!” “Lif’ dat bale!” You show a little grit and you land in jail. “Show a little grit” is a brilliant change [from get a little drunk] it fits the tune at a spot where the melody can’t overwhelm the words”

My favourite part of the history was very much the beginning in which Decker leads us through the maze of the song’s complicated history, followed by his absolute unabashed passion for Paul Robeson’s performance in particular. And once he began speaking to Robeson, then he began really exhuming the relationship between Robeson and the Jerome Kern, how he weaved it into his concerts stitched together of spirituals and songs but also how he defiantly changed words and inflections so that he always had power and control over its meaning and its interpretation.

Indeed, the relationship between the singer and the song was another fascinating tenet to Decker’s intense study. Robeson’s relationship, Sinatra’s relationship ( and the subsequent embrace of the Italian American community’s embrace of the song ), Bing Crosby’s relationship and, more recently, examples of contemporary performances and recordings and even the presentation of its timeless appeal to the raves of an America’s Got Talent audience.

You will never be able to hear the popular song again: not without thinking of its resonating implications: the fact that offensive slurs have been taken out and artists have layered it with a completely different context. But, one thing remains the same: it is eerie, haunting, tragic, beautiful and completely unforgettable.

I received this book from netgalley via Oxford University Press in exchange for an honest review.

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