RE: you forgot the patriotic orchestral soundtrack

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From: Matt Jensen (
Date: Fri Oct 27 2000 - 13:26:33 PDT

Since you asked...

A. Ol' Man River is not a slave work song.

"Ol' Man River is the song most closely associated with [the
famous African American singer, Paul] Robeson; it was
dedicated to him by composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II
and was a major element in the musical Showboat. The original 1927 lyrics
reflected the racism in the culture of the time and were re-written by
Robeson to eliminate the racist words and establish a message of
determined defiance."[1]

(For example, in Joe's quote below, the line:
   "You show a little grit and you land in jail"

 was originally:
   "Git a little drunk, An' you land in jail"

Robeson was a big enough star that he could change lyrics like this,
although it was still controversial.[2])

Also, "Showboat" covers a time span from the 1880s into the 1920s. While
African Americans still suffered many forms of oppression in that period,
they were no longer (technically) slaves. Perhaps that's why the singer
of "Ol' Man River" talks about landing in jail rather than being whipped.

So during slavery, no slaves sang "Ol' Man River", a song written by two
white guys in the 1920s about post-war life.

B. "gonna step and fetch" doesn't sound realistic to me in a work song.

Stepin Fetchit was a vaudeville and movie star, long after slavery. He's
remembered for his stereotypical characters. I can't recall any Negro
spirituals that say "I'm going to ingratiate myself to the master and be a
good slave", although frankly I've probably only heard a couple dozen of
them (many became "mainstreamed" as church hymns).

The songs I've heard are either about "life/work is hard", or "I'm going
to get my reward in heaven". Tom's lyrics are almost like "life/work is
hard", but because he created them for satire, they end up sounding like
one of those old, racist Bugs Bunny cartoons.

So my point is just that they don't sound believable, and could be taken
as demeaning to the real experiences of the slaves. If that sounds too
bleeding-heart to you, try substituting a 20th Century crime against
humanity in place of the 19th-Century one of slavery, and see if the
analogy to voting for Nader is still appropriate.



On Fri, 27 Oct 2000, Joseph S. Barrera III wrote:

> > > "Goona picks me some cottton fo masssa
> > > goona step and fetch when his whips crack"
> >
> > That's strange. I thought the work songs of the slaves were about
> > (spiritual) freedom, reaching heaven, etc., and not about how to be a
> > better slave. Thanks for teaching me something new.
> >From Old Man River:
> You and me, we sweat and strain
> Body all aching and wracked with pain
> Tote that barge, and lift that bale
> You show a little grit and you land in jail
> ... is this that far off from what Tom wrote?
> - Joe

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