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Old Man’s River

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— post subject to continual updating through early August 2014 —


Even with the memory losses of age and experience, I can recall appreciating Paul Robeson’s Ol’ Man River way back when my baritone register was as distant in my then future as my falsetto rests in peace through my now past. But if I ever actually learned the song along the way, that’s long gone. So I dodged a request to sing it at last week’s karaoke event, begging off with a promise to be prepared to perform it at next month’s session.

Suzi tells me she doesn’t like the song. That’s ok; we all have our different likes and dislikes, and I don’t judge or insult hers like some take pleasure in mocking me mine. And we might actually be in synch on one thing that might annoy her, one phrase that colors the entire song difficult for me to sing: “[I’m] scared of dyin’.” I’m not. So much so the opposite am I, it’s one of the things that troubled her the most about my brush with death. So no doubt she gets flashbacks when she hears me practicing that portion of the song, as vividly so as the urgent expectations I feel swelling inside on the notes as I feel my soul proclaiming the absolute inverse of the words coming out of my mouth.

But yes, I am well on my way practicing Ol’ Man River for our next karaoke session August 4. Notes (in progress) —

  • As much as for many of our other selections, I’ll want to preview Bobby’s karaoke background instrumentation before my performance. Are we in the key I am expecting? If not, how many clicks up or down do I need to have Bobby take it? Is the instrumentation similar to the Robeson clip I have, where I will have little or no intro before I will need to set my first notes down? What if any background vocal accompaniment does the karaoke version have? Does it include the full intermediate section Robeson does? Are there any timing differences – speeding up, slowing down, pauses – that I will need to prepare for? Will the karaoke backing accommodate the slight variations I am planning to introduce?
  • I’m comfortable with the full range in the key Robeson himself sang it, strong and full all the way from the lowest rumbling notes near the beginning to the high-soaring notes closing the song out. I find my notes pretty well for the intro portion – “Dere’s an ol’ man called de Mississippi…” – if I first quietly hum to myself the main beginning – “Ol’ man river, Dat ol’ man river…”
  • I’m sticking with the good ol’ South ebonics, or whatever they call the style of Robeson’s version from Showboat. There’s no way the song sound right putting a D – even a soft D – at the end of “ol’.” And once I sing “Ol’ man river,” it sounds as silly and inconsistent to “whitewash” the rest of the enunciation and grammar as it would be to keep a “thee” in Shakespeare while modernizing everything else. So give me it jes de way it go.
  • On “jail,” I will want to drop the note down into the basement. Except that if the karaoke version runs through that segment a second time, then on the repeat I will hold the note as Robeson does.
  • I was having trouble with my R on “river” until I began exaggerating it down to “rivah.” It doesn’t sound right as “rivah” and of course shouldn’t be “rivah,” but practicing it with “rivah” even once first thing in the morning softens my R enough to last me the whole rest of the day giving me “river” the way I want.
  • I’m getting my “ol'” the way I want if I go hard on my L. Hold the O as long as I need for singing my vowel, yes, but bend down over that L to the M in “man” like I”m bending down a nail with my tongue. At first I thought this might be like my R in “river” – something to exaggerate a time or two to get the feel, then back off to the real thing – but no, it’s almost impossible to overbend that L without getting downright comedian about it, so I can risk going after it as much as I want in the performance version.

More notes to come. Currently I’m practicing this maybe 6-10 times each day.

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Written by macheide

17 July 2014 at 2:55 pm

Posted in minstrel

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2 Responses

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  1. I may have found “somethin’!” I have not been happy with it, no matter how I varied pronunciation, inflection, tone, intensity, even the notes themselves. Then tonight without even planning to do so, just letting the song sing itself (as of course it will need to do for the performance, plus as many rehearsals as I might manage), I sang a really fat “ō” on “know” and found “somethin'” sliding quite nicely off that like peas off a plate. Playing with that, I know I won’t want that “ō” to be so obese that it hogs up all the seats on its aisle, but for certain my previous anorexic versions of “know” were giving “somethin'” nothing to do anything much with. Now I just need to work on getting it sounding out nice and plump without losing my own voice in the singing of it.


    18 July 2014 at 8:46 pm

  2. Been keeping up with my practice through the month, still refining what feels suited to my voice.

    Now with but a week to go before the August karaoke session where I might first sing my karaoke version of Ol’ Man River (with a possible repeat karaoke performance in September, at the request of several friends who will be in the middle of a group cruise next week), it felt high time for me to at least familiarize myself with the whole middle section of the song. I’d learned the main portion opening and closing the song well enough so I won’t be reading the karaoke screen; but although I don’t plan on memorizing those lines in the middle portion, I want to at least know what to expect to see on the screen, so I won’t be stumbling along.

    And ah yes, good thing I got around to doing so! I’m usually rather antagonistic toward blindly forced political correctness, but the original Hammerstein lyrics for the middle of this song are so ol’ South, even Robeson himself modified those middle lines in the recitals he performed later in his singing career. And well, I just can’t ever seeing myself singing it the way Hammerstein wrote it, no matter how “authentic” I aim to do it, no matter how much I might explain it in any introductory speech, no matter how understanding any audience might be. I just can’t. But then once I decide to stray from Hammerstein, I’m going to only take Robeson as advice, then head off and work up my own version.

    My own version, which I then might aim toward memorizing over the course of this past week, since I won’t be able to rely on whatever the karaoke screen decides to display, and since I’m not so keen on doing it from a piece of paper. I should have crossed this bridge before it got this late. Oh well, hand me the oars, and we’ll get there rowing hard.


    28 July 2014 at 4:59 pm


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