A River and a Volleyball: Two Demigods from Stage and Screen

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” 

“Ol’ Man River,” a moving lament of hard labor, racism, and indifference, might 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. It is a vision of suffering. And it personifies the river as an all-knowing and constant companion. Although the river “don’ say nuthin’,” Joe nonetheless imagines it as a witness in order to feel less alone. All in all, the river is personified more than it is deified and the spirituality of “Ole Man River” seems mainly non-theistic. It adapts the language and emotion of a Negro spiritual to create a secular hymn of sorrow.

Wilson, Tom Hanks' companion in

Wilson, Tom Hanks’ companion in “Cast Away”

A personification similar to the river is Wilson, Tom Hanks’ volleyball in the film Cast Away. After a plane crash, Hanks’ character washes up 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, yells at it, and finally grieves 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 spiritual persona in an object, the result of an individual’s suffering and the need for a 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 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.

The Music Man

Recently I stopped by a music store in town to buy banjo strings. I hadn’t been in the store for at least ten years. I remembered it as a hive of kids and grown-ups trying out guitars, pianos, and clarinets, browsing through racks of sheet music and instruction books, going in and out of the back rooms for lessons. This time, it was almost empty—partly the result of the guitar mega-store that had opened on the highway.

The owner himself had also changed. He had slowed, gained a tremor, and lost the steadiness of his speech. The change in him, along with the decline in his business, shook me. I realized that I had expected during those years that he and the store had remained as bustling as they once were, immune from time.

As I left I wondered what the music man’s recent life had felt like. What had been the satisfaction, the worth of it all, as he became ill and his business dropped off? In life, did aspiration and effort always lose out this way to decay?

But such sympathy comes with risks. It can distort our picture of another person, or a group. I knew almost nothing about the music man or his life. For years he had been teaching music to people of all ages, a legacy to be proud of—though whether he was or not I didn’t know. And he had music itself as a source of joy, presumably. Compassion can overgeneralize. Perhaps I was unaware of the ordinary satisfactions that sustained him.

The music man who lives happily ever after. (ovrtur.com)

The music man flies up to a happy ever after.

Still, I couldn’t put down the question that the music man had handed me: what is the value, the worth, of our lives if they always end in decline? Our inner voice tells us that we matter. Do we? We may have our protective attitudes; I certainly have mine. But these can be rocked when we come face to face with a man or woman who has weakened from disease or the passage of time.

There is another “Music Man.” The 1950s stage musical of that name describes a charming con man, Harold Hill, who arrives in an Iowa town to sell musical instruments and uniforms to the kids, promising he will teach them to play and will organize a band. Hill and the town librarian fall in love. She knows he is a fraud but keeps it to herself. Hill is finally exposed and is being put in handcuffs just as the instruments and uniforms arrive. The children appear in their uniforms, magically playing Beethoven and then the rousing finale of “Seventy-Six Trombones.” All ends well.

The  poster for “The Music Man” shows the smiling couple flying skyward, arm in arm, Hill playing a trumpet. The musical is a romanticized Christian answer to the dilemma of frailty and decline. The sinner is redeemed by love, death is defeated by grace. But I prefer the lesson I learned in the music man’s store.


This blog looks at ways in which the history of living things may be relevant to people’s largest questions about life. One of these questions is how to cope with suffering. Modern secularism and traditional religions differ widely in what they have to say about suffering. I suggest that a broad view of the evolution of all living things offers a middle ground.

Modern creeds don’t say much about how to endure or make sense of suffering. American Humanism, with its focus on ethical values for better lives and the good of humanity, mentions “methods of dealing with life’s harsher realities” in its introduction to religious humanism. Naturalism, as presented at naturalism.org, focuses on the physical world and the rejection of supernaturalism without discussing suffering. Some secularists, however, look back to the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who recommended reducing one’s suffering by cultivating an attitude of robust tranquility, leading a stable life with good friends, and not relying on the gods. His advice still gets respect.

"Job" by Leon Bonnat, 1880. Misery with supplication but without explanation (hebrewbible.wordpress.com)

Job by Leon Bonnat, 1880. Misery with supplication but without explanation (hebrewbible.wordpress.com)

But most people who seek to understand their suffering look to religion. Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths place suffering at the center: life is suffering, the source of suffering is attachment, and detachment is achievable. For Hindus, suffering results from past errors but is also a motivation for spiritual progress. The Christian Bible’s many stories of suffering are epitomized in the lesson of Job, whose miseries and supplications lead only to the moral that God is too great to be understood and is not obligated to explain suffering to Job or anyone else. Good behavior and right belief, in other words, don’t guarantee that we won’t suffer, for suffering may be completely undeserved.

Is there a view of suffering that is more empathetic than “methods for dealing with harsh realities” and yet remains within the bounds of secular thinking? A view of suffering with some of the comforting grandeur of the religious vision but also with a foundation in science?

The history of life offers a path to explore. From this point of view, human suffering is only one instance of the adversity faced by all living things, including plants and animals. “Suffering” itself is an awareness; it requires consciousness. But the onslaughts to well-being that provoke such suffering—the diseases, injuries, competition, hostilities, and changing environment—plague every single thing that lives. Only humans and some animals suffer, but all of life struggles.

Would this view console someone who is battling with cancer or severe drought or domestic violence? Probably not. To find consolation in the midst of such miseries, we need connections to our own kind.

But when we try at calmer moments to understand suffering and bolster ourselves to withstand it, we can hold in mind that its roots are shared by all living things. My recent bout with heart disease and heart surgery did indeed widen my empathy for others’ difficulty and bring me closer to certain people. If our suffering can easily add to our empathy for other humans, imagine the connection we might also feel for the struggles of all life.

Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother"

Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother



While only the anxious woman might be said to feel suffering, both she and the diseased tree are struggling for existence.