“Ol Man River”

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?

Paul Robeson singing

Paul Robeson singing “Ol Man River” in the 1936 film of Show Boat

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.

The 1927 sheet music for

The 1927 sheet music for “Ol Man River” 

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.

Wilson, Tom Hanks' companion in

Wilson, Tom Hanks’ companion in “Cast Away”

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.

8 thoughts on ““Ol Man River”

  1. I enjoyed your article.

    And it’s fascinating because the second last post I wrote on my blog a few days ago, “The Men Behind The Curtain” was originally called “Old Man River”.

    I wanted show that wisdom grows over time like a swelling, unstoppable river which, like it or not, carries men with it, showing them new horizons, emptying eventually into an infinite sea of understanding, that is, cosmic consciousness.

    I had quoted the song as well. Truth behaves as if it has a mind of its own, like the mighty Misssissipi, and those who try to subvert it for war or money or invasions are eventually washed away and forgotten like straws in the tide.

    In the end it seemed too esoteric and grand, for an article essentially about these low life thugs masquerade as governments.

    Fancy that…!

  2. I’m going to try and avoid the ‘spirituality’ or ‘transcendence’ words altogether, and come at it from a different direction. My suggestion is that, as evolving social mammals, individuals that are ‘aware’ of the troop (almost certainly unconsciously and at a very low level of perception and behaviour) and behaved in ways which promote the existence of the troop are more likely to pass their genes on. Hence ‘unconscious awareness of the troop’ becomes evolutionarily ‘baked in’. Now behaviours are motivated by feelings of some sort, so it is quite possible that ‘yearning for the comfort of being part of something greater’ naturally develops. Got to keep up and blend in with the troop after all.

    So the fictional examples may be ‘yearning for the troop, or ‘yearning for something greater’. You could argue that Robinson Crusoe’s delight with the existence of Man Friday is another example. If these yearnings are at least in part genetic then you would expect a few people to have little yearning for company/transcendence, a few to be desperate to fill those yearnings, and most people to be somewhere in between.

    Transcendece might feel like magic, or might arise from magical thinking, but it doesn’t have to *be* magic…

    • Perhaps consciousness is intrinsically expansive. If its basic components are perception and memory, it may have built on itself as the capacity for memory grew and provided more richness of perception which called for more memory, with adaptive advantages along the way and, in humans, some indifferent spinoffs as well.

  3. This makes sense to me, but I guess your two criteria have to be looked at closely. Certainly “promoting the existence of the troop” would help pass on your genes. But that can happen without being “aware of the troop,” can’t it? I guess that is what your parenthesis is about. I’m thinking of soldier ants and the like. Whether strict behavior of a certain kind eventually leads to a related “feeling” is, I suppose, also part of the issue.

    • Yes, I was using awareness in its general sense. There is certainly scientific evidence that people can pick up social cues without *conscious* awareness, but they obviously have to be aware – in the sense being generally alert and not asleep – to do so. I’m trying to avoid using the phrase ‘unconscious’ because that has become so ambiguous, although ‘unconscious awareness’ is useful in this context. See http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140818095210.htm as an example of how we react to social cues without the need for conscious(!) thought.

      As far as I can tell at the most basic level we are motivated by pain or pleasure. The absence of pleasure is hunger for pleasure, not pain, unless the hunger becomes too severe. For social animals conformity to social norms is pleasurable, social rejection is painful – I suspect built on the back of the basic motivations. As a consequence I suggest we try to avoid hunger for social interactions by paying (unconscious) attention to the cues of the social group, and this behaviour is ‘rewarded’ or ‘penalised’ by natural selection like any other.

      My suggestion is that all this unconscious attention is just a bunch of unconnected ballistic (once triggered cannot be recalled) responses, some of which are contradictory. Animals that can balance the contradictory responses more effectively do better…. and as a consequence we have been evolved to use conscious thought to fine tune our unconscious responses.

      Trouble is that our conscious thoughts are a relatively new and minor part of our skills. Not the jewel in the crown, but the gold plate on base metal. As a byproduct we often confabulate ‘reasons’ to explain our unconscious feelings to ourselves and others, and that leads to ‘yearnings for the spiritual’ etc.

      So I can see the stepping stones from social cues to spirituality (and there is scientific support for most of them), but whether or not they join up…

  4. Interesting that groups such as ant colonies or flocks of birds behave in a different way than you could predict by looking at the possible actions and awareness of individuals, as studies of flocks of birds in movement shows. Changes of direction are immediate and shared across the flock – not rippling through members at a rate dependent on the fastest reaction time.

    Colonies of termites, for example, collaborate to build towers which conduct and channel air, with precise, circular fins at the base to radiate heat. None of these structures are manageable or visible or comprehensible by a single termite. The ants build underground, blind, in the dark, yet when their colonies are filled with cement and excavated, they show an organisation far beyond the capability of any one ant to perceive, and for purposes, some of which, the construction worker ants do not even participate in.

    This means a greater intelligence is needed, a hive mind, which is not a property of the individuals, but rather the reverse: that the individuals are a property of it. Since consciousness, in a way even visible in twins, can be shared among different members of one group, it cannot be explained in the mechanistic way, solely as a property of a brain – or in the case of ants, a tiny collection of neurons (a design unchanged for at least 300 million years) locked tight inside a skull!


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