Old Man River

Paul Robeson sings “Ol Man River” in Show Boat

Yeah, I know this doesn’t exactly sound like the famous song “Old Man River.” I was inspired to create my own version of it a few nights ago after watching Show Boat on TCM. I think the song is one of the most beautiful songs America has produced and says much about American history. The music is by Jerome Kern with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. It was origianlly sung by Jules Bledsoe in the 1927 musical Show Boat. However, the most famous rendition of it, one that is still noted today, was sung by Paul Robeson in the 1936 film version of Show Boat.

It contrasts the struggles and hardships of African Americans with the endless, uncaring flow of the Mississippi River. It is sung from the point of view of a Black stevedore on a showboat. It is sung complete once in the musical’s first scene by stevedore “Joe” who travels with the boat. Joe serves as a sort of musical one-man Greek chorus and the song, when reprised, comments on the action, as if saying, “This has happened, but the river keeps rolling on anyway.”

The Midnight Oil Band plays Their Version of “Ol Man River”

Using the Korg Electribe Sampler, I created a program and used this through the song, tweaking the background voices in the program and adding reverb and a different voice sounds against the main program. I first added touches from the Korg Minilogue Polyphonic Synthesizer but cut this out as it seemed like overkill. I added the five “D” notes played on an arpeggiator from the Novation Mininova Synthesizer. I sang the words of the song through the Zoom V3 Vocal Processor and added hip-hop lyrics. But the singing didn’t work and I took it out and just used the sounds of the Electribe Sampler and the Mininova. This seemed enough.

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