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>> 99 3 Songs of Free Men The Sound Migrations of “Ol’ Man River” I’ll sing . . . all over this great land until my people are free. —Paul Robeson “We know about this struggle,” wrote Paul Robeson. His comments, written during World War II, brought into stark relief the conditions that threatened the practice of freedom on a global scale, and he articulated them through a communal language (“we”) balanced by his own experiences and knowledges: “We know what oppression means. We have all experienced it. I was in Spain. I saw the people’s struggle against Fascism. I was in Germany. I know that Hitler would make me a slave forever.”1 This danger, palpable at the time of his writing, stirred him to action. In addition to writing, he spoke and performed at a number of events in support of GIs that also addressed the concurrent issue of civil rights. In 1942, he appeared at “Labor Salutes the Armed Forces,” at the Central Park Mall in New York City. Sponsored by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the program included tributes to various divisions of the U.S. Armed Forces, “the interned workers,” China, the Soviet Union, and “the fighting French.”2 The threat of fascism during World War II was enough to mobilize the most ardent of peacemakers, including Robeson, who traveled in order to commune with the soldiers in the European theater of operations . As he mentioned in his article, he was in Spain working alongside the Loyalists and in Germany singing for U.S. soldiers. In 1945 he, along 100 > 101 wildly popular novel of the same name, tells the story of a showboat on the Mississippi River in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries . Main characters include showboat captain Andy Hawkes, his puritanical wife Parthenia Hawkes, and their rambunctious and later starlet daughter Magnolia (Hawkes) Ravenal. The supporting cast is made up primarily of showboat entertainers and workers, including the Black kitchen duo Joe and Queenie.3 When Robeson was offered the part of Joe in the original run of the musical in 1927, he declined, citing scheduling conflicts. “Ol’ Man River,” the musical’s soon-to-be standout hit, was dedicated to Robeson by composer Jerome Kern, which made his pass on the part even more pronounced. As theater scholar Scott McMillin documents, the earliest known script for the musical entirely centered on Robeson as actor, singer, and personality, making his withdrawal from the role the precursor to radical changes within the show.4 Show Boat, however, went on to be a huge Broadway success with Jules Bledsoe, the prominent Black baritone, in the role. Despite a well-received performance, Bledsoe was passed over in the European tour. When the production moved to London in 1928, producer Florenz Ziegfeld again offered Robeson the role, which he accepted. He won over London director Alfred Butt when he agreed to sing “Ol’ Man River” a total of three times during the performance instead of the original one. This small role was described by his wife Eslanda Goode Robeson as “ridiculously easy,” yet she saw the potential in the “song hit of the show,” and so did Robeson.5 He wrote to his musical partner Lawrence Brown that “I sing only one song—‘Ol’ Man River,’ but it runs through the show and I get three good spots for it. I’ll get a lot of publicity , and it might make London concerts easy.”6 Other components of the musical beyond Robeson and his early fame as a singer served to make the musical a success. Show Boat is recognized as a production that changed the way that patrons viewed musicals . According to musicologist Geoffrey Block, “Before Show Boat and for a long time thereafter operettas were generally set in exotic locations filled with people most audiences were not likely to meet in everyday life.” Show Boat’s “early Americana . . . began to replace fictitious European places as suitable locales.”7 The locale used in the musical was the mysterious and romantic Mississippi River, a construction of Show Boat novelist Edna Ferber. Ferber was born and raised in the North, and her 102 > 103 musicians and actors began their own blackface reviews. Artists like Bert Williams and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson performed and made their fortunes under cover of burnt cork.13 Even as a politicized Black musical theater tradition developed on Broadway through the efforts of James Weldon Johnson and others—most prominently with the 1921 production...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780814770955
Related ISBN
9780814770412
MARC Record
OCLC
861200076
Pages
368
Launched on MUSE
2013-10-30
Language
English
Open Access
No
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