When Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the Broadway musical Show Boat in 1927, their ambitions for "Ol' Man River" were modest indeed. The song was simply intended to bring the action down front while the extravagant set for the Cotton Blossom showboat was being dismantled upstage. But over the decades, the song has found a life all its own. Today, this evocation of the Mississippi River as a metaphor for endurance is the "Amazing Grace" of the American theater, a song whose profound truths transcend time and place.
"It is largely an anthem," says Michel Bell, who performs "Ol' Man River" again this week at the Muny. "The song goes beyond musical theater. It's now a piece of literature that speaks to all peoples of the world."
Although Bell has sung the song countless times, he hasn't a clue as to what that tally might be -- nor does he want to know. "I'll tell you why not," he says. "Because every time I sing it, the emotion comes from what I'm feeling at the moment. Whatever mood I'm in, I lend that to the song, and that breathes new life to it. But it took me a long time, and a long journey, to be able to do that."
Bell was introduced to the "Ol' Man River" by his first voice teacher in Fresno, California. "I was just a teenager," Bell recalls. "My parents couldn't afford to pay for lessons, so this man taught me for free at seven o'clock in the morning. I was reluctant to learn 'Ol' Man River,' because I didn't understand the language. Saying 'dat' instead of 'that' or 'sumpin' instead of 'something' -- we didn't talk that way in Fresno. And what few lyrics I did understand, lines like 'Colored folks work on the Mississippi' -- at the age of fifteen, I had a problem with that. So every time I came to my lesson, I'd bring my Handel or Mozart, but I'd leave Hammerstein and Kern at home."
But Bell's music teacher persevered. "In time I grew to love Kern's haunting music," Bell says. "But what really turned me on to the song was learning about Paul Robeson."
Robeson, the esteemed singer and actor, was persecuted by the American government throughout his career because of his political beliefs and social activism. Robeson performed the role of Joe in Show Boat in New York, London and Los Angeles, as well as in the 1936 film version. "Back when Robeson sang the song, the tempo was a little faster," Bell says. "But there's a pain and an anguish in his voice that sends chills through you. To me, he is the embodiment of those lyrics."
Bell first performed "Ol' Man River" at a memorial service for Martin Luther King Jr. in Santa Ana, California, in 1968. But he didn't portray Joe for another twenty years, first in productions in California and Michigan, then at the Muny in 1992. The following year, director Hal Prince cast him in the epic Broadway revival. For the next five years, Bell traveled with Show Boat to Toronto, Broadway, Chicago and London. No sooner had he left the musical than, on New Year's Eve 1999, he ushered in the millennium by singing "Ol' Man River" on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd estimated at more than 600,000.
To Bell, the song is "a baton that's handed down from generation to generation. When you sing it, you can feel the legacy of Jules Bledsoe, the original Joe, and of Paul Robeson." Now, of course, Bell is a part of that legacy.
Any words of wisdom for the next generation of singers who might just now be coming to "Ol' Man River"? "Sing it from what you feel inside yourself as a human being," Bell advises. "Sing it from your heart."