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One of the most beloved songs of the twentieth century, “Ol’ Man River” was created by composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II with Paul Robeson in mind. With its strong rhythmic pulse and the evocative combination of hope and despair, it captures a powerful element at the core of the fight for civil rights—and Robeson’s fight for equality.

Robeson addressing the 1943 NMU convention in New York City:

Thanks, Brothers… whenever I meet an NMU fellow (and I see them wherever I go), I see immediately a friend, a Brother. I have come here because the Union is a sort of home to me… These are days when personal, individual considerations give precedence to the struggle for the survival of the world itself… it is with the deepest sincerity that I tell you that especially today nothing makes me prouder than to be a member of the National Maritime Union… There is no organization that is doing a better share in the whole world struggle…

Editorial drawings of Robeson by the artist Charles H. Alston, 1943.

Editorial drawings of Robeson by the artist Charles H. Alston, 1943. Alston worked as a staff artist for the Office of War Information and Public Relations, creating drawings of notable African Americans, images that were used in over 200 black newspapers across the country. The government hoped the publicity would “foster goodwill with the black citizenry.” ~ National Archives, ARC

Old Man River

(Oscar Hammerstein II, Jerome Kern)

There’s an old man called the Mississippi
That’s the old man I don’t like to be!
What does he care if the world’s got troubles?
What does he care if the land ain’t free?

Old man river,
That old man river
He must know sumpin’
But don’t say nuthin’,
He just keeps rollin’
He keeps on rollin’ along.

He don’t plant taters,
He don’t plant cotton,
And them that plants ’em
Is soon forgotten,
But old man river,
He just keeps rollin’ along.

You and me, we sweat and strain,
Body all achin’ and racked with pain,
Tote that barge!
And lift that bale!
You show a little grit,
And you lands in jail.
But I keeps laughin’
Instead of cryin’
I must keep fightin’
Until I’m dyin’
And old man river,
He’ll just keep rollin’ along.

Recording from “The Odyssey of Paul Robeson,” with Lawrence Brown on piano.
© Copyright Labor Arts Inc.