Commentary Magazine


Contentions

RE: Unforgivable

Abe’s post on the bowdlerization of Mark Twain reminded me of the evolution of the opening line of the great Broadway musical Show Boat by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. In 1927, when the curtain went up, the chorus sang “Niggers all work on de Mississippi, /Niggers all work while de white folk play. /Loadin’ up boats with de bales of cotton. /Gettin’ no rest till de /Judgment Day!”

By the 1936 movie, the line had become “Darkies all work …” The 1946 Broadway revival began “Colored folk work on de Mississippi.” By the 1951 movie, it was “Here we all work …” The 1966 Lincoln Center production simply omitted the line altogether. Only with John McGlinn’s magnificent recording of the complete score in 1988 was the original text first restored.

No one could possibly accuse Oscar Hammerstein of being a racist and, indeed, the word he chose was historically and dialectically correct. It’s the word black stevedores on the Mississippi would have used in the 1880s.

I wonder what Mark Twain would have said about an expurgated Huckleberry Finn. I bet it would have been funny. I happen to know what Oscar Hammerstein would have said. When Paul Robeson started rewriting “Ol’ Man River” for his own political purposes, Hammerstein said: “As the author of these words, I should like it known that I have no intention of changing them or permitting anyone else to change them. I further suggest  that Paul would write his own songs and leave mine alone.”


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