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.
“Ol’ Man River,” a moving lament of hard labor, racism, and indifference, might read 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 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 version. 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. It is a vision of suffering. And it personifies the river as an all-knowing, constant, imperturable companion. Although the river “don’ say nuthin’,” imagining it as a witness helps Joe feel less alone. The river is personified more than it is deified; the spirituality of “Ol’ Man River” is relatively non-theistic. It adapts the language and emotion of a Negro spiritual to create a secular hymn of sorrow. But it reminds us of how long humans have been animating the forces of nature to help them manage their fears or understand what they could not control.
A personification similar to “ol’ man river” is Wilson, Tom Hanks’ volleyball in the film Cast Away. After a plane crash, Hanks’ character washes ashore on an uninhabited island along with cargo that includes a Wilson volleyball. Hanks draws its face with his bleeding hand. Over the ensuing years, he chats with Wilson, listens to it, yells at it, and finally weeps when it floats away from the raft that Hanks escapes on.
Like Joe’s all-knowing river, Wilson, 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 portray the emergence of a living persona in an object, a process that results from an individual’s suffering and the need for a reliable, wise—but not a notably supernatural or even sympathetic—companion.
Yet Joe’s river is, compared to the volleyball, a grander spiritual vision. The Mississippi is the witness for the exploitation and racism that fill not only Joe’s life but the lives of those around him. The Mississippi of the song is a transcendent presence and perhaps offers Joe the 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.