He keeps his mouth shut, doesn’t vote, doesn’t care about the world’s troubles, and doesn’t lift one finger to make a difference or lend assistance. It seems like he would know something, but what he knows is nothing. Mostly, he just keeps rolling along.
In 1927, “Showboat” opened on Broadway. This popular and beloved musical chronicled life aboard a riverboat that stopped to bring entertainment to communities along its route on the Mississippi River. One particular song was a showstopper.
When Paul Robeson, the son of a former slave, sang Old Man River, he was making a statement with more than his incredible deep bass voice. As a highly educated lawyer and civil rights activist of the early 20th century, he changed a few words in the lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein to more honestly reflect the Black American experience.
Excerpt of Original Lyrics
You an’ me,
we sweat an’ strain
Body all achin’ an’ racked wid Pain -
Tote dat barge!
Git a little Drunk
An’ you land in jail… Ah gits weary
An’ sick of tryin’
Ah’m tired of livin’
And skeered of dyin’
And Ol’ Man River
He jes keeps rollin’ along
Mr. Robeson’s Changes
Tote that Barge and
You show a little grit and
You lands in jail… But I keeps laffin’
instead of cryin’
I must keep fightin’
Until I’m dyin’,
And Ol’ Man River.
He just keeps rolling’ along.
The mighty Mississippi River was a euphemism for the misguided thinking of American society who paid little attention to the population still shackled by blind prejudice. Mr. Robeson sang with poignant depth of
feeling, ”What does he care if the land ain’t free? He just keeps rolling along.”
The famous river reaches 2,350 miles from Minnesota to Louisiana. The volumes written about this great and accommodating body of water would fill hundreds of books. This old man is a force with which to be reckoned; a multiple personality whose exploits and adventures are documented to honor him, but also to expose him.
A riverboat was a specialized watercraft designed to operate on inland waterways to haul people and cargo. Shallow places and dangerous rocks or debri contributed to many disasters. For example: In 1865, the steamship Sultana was licensed to hold only 350 passengers. 2,134 Union soldiers were on their way back upriver from Confederate prison. With speed and excess weight the boilers exploded. 1,700 died in the worst ship disaster in the United States. It eclipsed even the sinking of the Titanic.
The river’s constant loyalty as a thoroughfare is without question, but he has an opposite aspect. Countless humans and goods have been banished to watery graves, albeit victims of their own foolishness, pulled under by the muddy fingers and unforgiving sweep of his arbitrary hand.
Bandits, murderers, gamblers, fortune hunters; all were drawn to the impressive largest river in North America. On the positive side, this legendary river has influenced everything from music to literature.
After the Civil War, Samuel Clemmons retired from a career as a steamboat pilot to become a prolific author. His pen name, Mark Twain, was a term for marking the safe depth of 12 feet for steamboats.
The veiled reminders from a beautiful 1927 musical number challenging society to follow the Golden Rule and treat our fellow humans with respect and dignity, were honorable and with well placed intent. Nearly 80 years later, there is still a lesson in that famous song about a big muddy waterway that ever flows but doesn’t see.
The direction of a river is set, but the course it takes can be changed. The magnificent and ever powerful Mississippi River has places to go and things to do and can be a positive image for the journey of life.
Hopefully, a new song, written in the hearts of God’s people, will keep us laughing instead of crying, and fighting the good fight until we die - as we keep on rolling along.
The opinions expressed by authors may not necessarily reflect the opinion of FaithWriters.com.
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