Frank Sinatra sings “Old Man River” (music by Jerome Kern, lyric by Oscar Hammerstein II, 1927) in the star-studded bio-pic of Kern, Till the Clouds Roll By (1946.) The film features lavish renditions of famous songs from his musicals, performed by MGM’s stable of musical stars of the time.
“Ol’ Man River” is the most famous song in Kern and Hammerstein’s groundbreaking musical Show Boat, where it was sung by the African-American character Joe. It introduced the then-daring subjects of racial discrimination, miscegenation, and social inequality; topics not common in the frothy musicals of the era.
Paul Robeson did the most famous version(s) of the song and was associated with it through his career. He played “Joe” in the 1928 and 1932 stage productions, the 1936 film version, and appeared in a Los Angeles stage revival in 1940. Beginning about 1938, Robeson changed a few of the lyrics of “Ol’ Man River”, most notably in the verse that begins “Niggers all work on the Mississippi.” He substituted “darkies”, and in subsequent recordings and productions the lyric was uniformly changed to “colored folks work on the Mississippi.”
It may seem odd, even in an all-but-fictitious bio-pic, to give this iconic song to a white performer. However, that precedent had been set already in 1928 when Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra made a no. 1 hit recording of the song with Bing Crosby on vocals and Bix Beiderbecke on cornet. (Whiteman later recorded the song with Paul Robeson on vocals.)