"Ol' Man River"

"Ol' Man River"

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This sheet music contains the music and lyrics for “Ol’ Man River,” a song from the 1927 Broadway musical Show Boat, one of the masterpieces of American theater. Sheet music was a popular means of dispersing songs throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, before the widespread availability of phonographs and radio shifted the music industry’s focus to recorded songs. With sheet music such as this, people would typically gather around a piano and sing, bringing the stories and sounds of the theater into parlors across the country.

Show Boat is regarded as the first American musical to depart from the genre’s traditional light comedy by featuring serious dramatic complexities, notably race relations among people along the Mississippi River. Show Boat was adapted by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern from the 1926 novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edna Ferber. Both the book and the musical mix humor with nostalgia as they recall the disappearing culture of the show boat. A novelty form of performance in the 1800s, a show boat was a floating theater that featured melodramas, musical acts, dancing, and vaudeville as it traveled along American waterways such as the Mississippi, Cumberland, and Ohio Rivers. The popularity of showboats declined in the 20th century as the country moved from the rivers to the roads and motion pictures replaced the stage as the main form of entertainment. The musical Show Boat recalls this era, as it follows the Cotton Blossom and the people the boat affects while traveling up and down the Mississippi.

Although the main focus of the musical is on the cast and crew of the Cotton Blossom, the most interesting and memorable character is Joe, the black dock worker who tells the story of hardships suffered by African Americans through the song “Ol’ Man River.” Juxtaposed against the white merrymakers on board—Show Boat was the first integrated musical, featuring actors of both races on stage and in the chorus— Joe totes bales of cotton and sings about his struggles. The lyrics “Ah gets weary an’ sick of tryin’, Ahm tired of livin’ an’ skeered of dyin’,” reflect the somber, yet resigned tone of the song. Just as with the problems of all the characters, the relentless Mississippi pays no heed, for the river just keeps rolling along.

The African American characters in Show Boat have been viewed by some as offensive caricatures that portray black people as servants. Animosity toward the play has been demonstrated in various ways. For instance, Paul Robeson, the famous singer for whom the part of Joe was originally written, altered the lyrics in his own recordings of “Ol’ Man River,” removing certain words and the stereotypical dialect. Protests are frequently staged against revivals of the musical, although some performing arts critics and historians point to the treatment of a mixed-race marriage in the play, Hammerstein’s own desire for tolerance, and the fact that portrayal of racist stereotypes in modern American theater employed is usually not to condone racism, but to satirize and condemn the mindsets that perpetuate it.
Object Name
sheet music
date made
"Show Boat" debuted on Broadway
19th and early 20th centuries
Edna Ferber authored Pultizer-Prize winning novel, Show Boat
19th century
authored Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Showboat
Ferber, Edna
Hammerstein II, Oscar
Kern, Jerome
Robeson, Paul
T. B. Harms & Co.
T. B. Harms Company
place made
United States: New York, New York City
show boat route
United States: Mississippi River
United States: Cumberland River
United States: Ohio River
Physical Description
ink (overall material)
paper (overall material)
overall: 11 7/8 in x 9 in; 30.1625 cm x 22.86 cm
ID Number
nonaccession number
catalog number
The Emergence of Modern America
See more items in
Cultural and Community Life: Entertainment
Music & Musical Instruments
Popular Entertainment
On the Water exhibit
On the Water
Exhibition Location
National Museum of American History
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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