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'You and me, we sweat and strain': blacks in America and the musical Show Boat

By Peter West - posted Thursday, 7 January 2016


The relationship between artists and their society is always a complex one. This is especially true of opera, music and other forms of theatre. Should the artist create a magical world that lets the audience escape? Or confront it with hard, gritty truths? And if the critique is too severe, will people come to see it?

All this brings us to a viewing of the musical Show Boat. The relevance of this to today's America is all too clear to anyone who watches with a critical eye, as we shall see in a moment. But first some background and some impressions.

Show Boat is an American musical based on the stage musical of the same name by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein. The version we commonly see was made in 1951. This was the third time a film had been made of the musical. The 1951 movie is the most sanitised and least confronting version. It was one of MGM's most popular musicals.

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A viewer today sees a very fussy musical with a lot of frills and dross. An overall impression is that the musical (at least this version) is like a very big, rich cake. And deep inside the cake there is a very tart filling, perhaps like sour cherry, that makes you sit up in surprise.

The story is that of a riverboat and the adventures and romances of those who live on it. It's a showboat- a boat that travels up and down the river, with people who perform shows for townspeople who would normally see little live entertainment, for the setting is 1880s, 1890s and beyond. Remember that by this time the Civil War had finished, but hundreds of years of black slavery had left their mark and could not be erased.

The race theme emerges

We find ourselves on the bank of a river in a Mississippi town. A showboat is about to visit. There are numerous versions, and endless revisions, of the text, sometimes because of arguments about how to portray history. But the film retains something of the original: as the show starts, blacks are shown working in the fields. And in a clever way, the stage is set for racial tragedy. Thus after a rather slow start, with bits of romances, apparent nonsense, and ordinary songs, it seems that Julie is of mixed race. A jealous suitor, Pete the engineer, brings the sheriff of the town they are visiting onto the boat to arrest Julie and Steve. The charge is miscegenation, or mixed-race marriage. That was illegal in southern States. Meanwhile, Steve has hurriedly pricked Julie's finger and sucked some of her blood, so he can claim to be half-blooded, as she is. But as blacks were not allowed on the stage with whites, both must leave the showboat. We cut to Joe, a black man who is a labourer on the boat. And he sings 'Ol' Man River.' It's a harsh commentary on the unfairness of life. The original version was tougher:

Don't look up, and don't look down
You don't dast make the white
boss frown

And later-

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Let me go 'way from the Mississippi
Let me go 'way from de white man boss
Show me dat stream called de river Jordan
Dat's de ol' stream dat I long to cross

The river runs its course, and never stops. But for black people, only death will bring an end to the back-breaking work and brutality. There were numerous changes to the song made by various people. The word n****r understandably was changed, as it is blatantly racist. Later versions used the terms 'darkies' and then 'coloured folks'. ( I simply use the term 'blacks' in this article for simplicity and I mean no offence. ) The Paul Robeson version of the song in an earlier film version is much tougher than in the later one , and became justly famous. The effect of the song is to underline the unfairness of life in the southern US States, most of all for people who are black or mixed-race. There are other echoes of America's racist past in the show, such as the complaint from one of the actors that someone is acting like Simon Legree. He was the vicious white overseer who has Tom whipped to death in the well-known attack on slavery, Uncle Tom's Cabin.

It's significant that the romantic lead in the riverboat show appears dressed as an officer of the Confederacy. Kim, child of two key characters, later plays with a doll dressed as a Confederate officer, placed on bales of cotton. My suspicion is that this is meant to suggest that the Southerners watching the show are meant to be comforted by a rosy view of the South's horrific experience in the Civil War, similar to that of Gone with the Wind. Although the 1951 version loses some of the original punch, the gulf between whites and blacks, and the many injustices done before and after the Civil War, are still clear to a discerning viewer. At the end, the lovers kiss, the riverboat sails off, and the music swells to a climax. But the bales of cotton- the economic basis of slavery- are ever-present.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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