Dere’s an ol man called de Mississippi
Dat’s de ol’ man dat I’d like to be
What does he care if de world’s got troubles?
What does he care if de land ain’t free?
Ol’ man river,
Dat ol’ man river
He mus’ know sumpin’
But don’t say nuthin’
He jus’ keeps rollin’
He keeps on rollin’ along….
You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain,
Body all achin’ an’ rack’d wid pain,
Tote dat barge!
Lif’ dat bale!
Git a little drunk
An’ you land in jail.
Ah gits weary
An’ sick of tryin’
Ah’m tired of livin’
An’ skeered of dyin’
But ol’ man river,
He jes’ keeps rollin’ along.
This famous lament of hard labor, racism, and the indifferent river might read and sound like a Negro spiritual from the days of slavery, but it is not. It is a musical number from Show Boat, written in 1927 and set in the 1920s, about a river boat that docks and offers theatrical productions at towns along the water. “Ol’ Man River” is sung by one of the dock workers, Joe; here is Paul Robeson’s peerless rendition from the 1936 film. The lyrics were written by Broadway songwriter Oscar Hammerstein.
If it is not an actual Negro spiritual, how might we describe this song? Unlike traditional spirituals, the song includes very few biblical references—only to the judgment day when Joe will find rest and to another river, the Jordan, that he longs to cross to a new life. And Joe’s song is not a prayer, as many spirituals and hymns are; he is singing about the Mississippi, not to it.
But the song is spiritual in other ways. Joe describes his suffering and he personifies the river as an all-knowing and constant companion. The river “don’ say nuthin’,” but Joe imagines it as a witness and feels less alone as a result. We might call this a “religious” song, perhaps, but not in an orthodox sense. Because the river is personified without being deified, the song’s spirituality is essentially non-theistic. We have the appearance and sound of traditional Christianity but with modern, secular spiritual content.
A similar, secular personification from a different work of twentieth-century entertainment is Wilson, Tom Hanks’ volleyball in the film Cast Away. Hanks’ character washes up on an uninhabited island along with a Wilson volleyball on which he draws a face. Alone over the ensuing years, Hanks converses with Wilson, yells at it, and grieves when it floats away from the raft Hanks escapes on. Like Joe’s all-knowing river, Wilson too, in Hanks’ mind, seems wise. Unlike the mute river, though, and appropriately for a man alone on a deserted island, Wilson seems to listen and respond. Both works show us the emergence of a religious experience out of an individual’s suffering and his need for a wise—but not a notably supernatural—companion.
Yet Joe’s river is, compared to the volley ball, a grander spiritual vision, for the exploited labor and dehumanizing racism that fill Joe’s life impact not only him but everyone around him. The Mississippi of the song is a transcendent presence and perhaps offers Joe some consolation that suffering and injustice are small pieces of a larger entity. Joe understands that the flow of the river, like the flow of time, does not stop for the struggles of anyone.