The G.L.Horton file - "On revising 'Old Man River'"

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"The G.L.Horton file"

note: entire contents copyright 1997 by G.L.Horton

Revising "Old Man River"

I wrote, in response to this:

>>Last week I heard rebroadcasts of Paul Robeson's (is that the right spelling?) son's interview regarding his father's contribution to Showboat. Each time he sang Ol' Man River, he deleted more of the racist text and inserted his own words until the song was a protest song.
>>I was saddened & sickened to realize that I have never heard the revised lyrics! I've heard only the shufflin' slave lyrics.

Dear Listfriends,
I feel impelled to weigh in on what I suspect is the opposite side of this issue.

As far as is possible for flawed human beings with "normal" socialization, Edna Ferber and Oscar Hammerstein were not racists. They intended that their art describe and combat racism. This doesn't mean that their work has any magical status. Interpretive artists may make changes. But the changes aren't necessarily improvements.

"Niggers all work on the Mississippi/
Niggers all work while the white folks play"

was the original lyric. You probably haven't heard it: it hasn't been sung that way for a long time. Robeson substituted "colored folks". Is this an improvement, or a euphemism? Does it describe as vividly as "nigger" the poisonous attitude that was common at the time -- and unfortunately still is? The "polite" term for racial categorization changes frequently -- which is not surprising, since "race" is a social category, not a biological one. Euphemisms are swapped regularly as long as the underlying problem, hostility or contempt for the thing named itself, is still there. "Quaker" was originally an insult. It branded mambers of Fox's Society of Friends as cowards, and traitors. They were arrested arbitrarily, beaten by street mobs. When members of that group became respected and powerful, the name lost its insult status and became neutral. "Lesbian" and "Dyke" are insults now, in some circles. In others, the words and the categories they describe are terms of honor.
the example of
>>"Get a little drunk, an' you land in jail " and other denigrating lyrics. These are the lyrics Paul Robeson refused to sing and replaced with protest lyrics.

seems to me a perfect illustration. The lyric clearly implies that ex-slaves were denied their civil rights and jailed unfaily for "crimes" that were not crimes when committed by those categorized as "white".

It was and is true, and it was an is an outrage.

"Blacks" "African-Americans" however self or gov'mt classified, are about 12% of the US population. They are 75% of the people incarcerated for drug offenses, in spite of statistics proving that drug use is at the same level among them as it is in the general population. Alcohol use is lower.

The lyric today might be "Get a little high", and a believer in the doctrine that art should be about inspiring role models might very well refuse to sing it, as Robeson did. The producers of "Showboat" went along with his changes in performance because Robeson was a brilliant, multi-talented, politically committed, well-intentioned man, and his singing expressed the central emotional truth the song was meant to convey. So maybe Robeson really did know better than the original writers what words he needed to be able to sing it well.

But "show a little spunk and you land in jail", Robeson's emendation, is a lyric that lets white folks today off the hook. It is easy to believe that that kind of overt oppression is a thing of the past, quaint, doesn't happen any more.

Over the years Robeson kept on changing the lyrics to correspond to changes in the way the "problem" was currently formulated. His admiration for communism and subsequent blacklisting during the Cold War adds a further complication. Robeson's son has been concerned to rescue the singer's reputation from the shameful treatment he got in the 50's. To that end he highlights the Robeson deeds he thinks would be approved today, and plays down what might be considered "incorrect". But what use is history if it can't free us from the limits of the current perspective? And how can it do that if it is constantly revised to conform to the current perspective?

The Supreme Court has said that there is no right to yell "fire" in a crowded theatre. But what if there IS a fire? Maybe you shouldn't yell -- but shouldn't you say SOMETHING?

Polite conversation excludes religion, politics and sex. And race. How are we ever going to free ourselves from bigotry if whenever we try to talk about it we are accused of promoting it?

I've always felt that the artist's first obligation is to the truth of his or her own perceptions; next is trying to refine and widen those perceptions to take in as many not-selves as possible: as Aristotle put it when praising Sophocles, to "see life steadily and see it whole." Just trying to do this is incredibly difficult. I am infinitly grateful to those like Ferber and Buck and Gershwin and Hammerstein -- and yes, Robeson---who stuggled to make popular art deal honestly with important public issues. If they didn't always succeed, well, even their failures are instructive. (Once we can figure out what those failures really are.)

But the Broadway musical (alas?) may be America's crowing artistic achievement so far, and it draws from european classical, yiddish, vaudeville, and jazz performance traditions. "Showboat" and "Porgy and Bess" are jewels in that crown. How sad if we lose the magnanimity to perform or appreciate them.

G.L.Horton -- Newton, MA, USA

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