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Cornelius Van Vorst, ca.1620; 
Jersey City Free Public Library; Grover Cleveland Political Cartoon; 
Grover Cleveland Birthplace Historical Site Collection Peter Lee, former slave, ca.1880; 
Hoboken Historical Photographs Collection; Farm Map of Hillsboro, Somerset County, 1860; 
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Seabrook Farms Collection;

Lyric Changes
Paul Robeson often changed lyrics of songs he performed to better reflect the reality of the Black American experience of his time. It's been said that Robeson felt it was an artist's duty to devote all of his skills and celebrity status toward upholding the rights of all people to enjoy the full benefits of democracy. In applying this philosophy to his performance career, one could deduce Robeson felt freedom of speech and expression was an integral part of being a performer. Examine the two sets of lyrics to the song, "Old Man River" from the Broadway musical Showboat. Robeson altered the lyrics when he performed in the musical as well as in concert.
Instructions
After reading the lyrics from the original "Ol' Man River" and then the lyrics that Robeson changed, address the following questions to better understand the underlying motivation for the alteration of lyrics.
  1. In comparing the two sets of lyrics, what specific differences can be cited?
  2. Do the Robeson alterations change the meaning of the piece? If yes, how so? If no, why not?
  3. From what you know of the constant struggle for civil rights in America, how did these changes reflect the Black American experience of Robeson's time?
  4. It was considered controversial that Robeson altered lyrics. Today, the controversy surrounding lyrical content is different. Performers such as the late Tupac Shakur, Snoop Doggy Dog, and Marilyn Manson are often chastised by the media for their songwriting. Robeson's changes reflected social activism. Compare Robeson's activism with the freedom of speech/censorship issues surrounding modern-day artists.
  5. From what you learned of Robeson's background thus far, how would he respond to the notion that gangsta rap reflects the black experience of this time period for the majority of Black America? Would Robeson be a supporter or an outspoken critic of this music? Explain your reasoning.
  6. Can you think of any American artists who adhere to the creed that those in a position to do something to uphold basic human rights must do so? Who are they and what are their goals?
  7. Do you believe that celebrities, because of their status, must serve as role models to today's youth? Why or why not? Would Robeson consider himself a role model based on what you have examined?
Original Lyrics Robeson Changes
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?
Ol' Man River,
Dat Ol' Man River
He mus' know sumpin' But don't say nuthin', He jes' keeps rollin',
He keeps on rollin' along.
He don't plant taters,
He don't plant cotton,
An' dem dat plants 'em
Is soon forgotten,
But Ol' Man River,
He jes' keeps rollin' along
You an' me, we sweat an' strain,
Body all achin' an' racked 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
There's an ol' man called de Mississippi;
That's the ol' 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..
Ol' Man River,
That Ol' Man River
He mus' know sumpin' But don't say nuthin',
He jes' keeps rollin',
He keeps on rollin' along.
He don't plant taters,
He don't plant cotton,
An' dem dat plants 'em
Is soon forgotten,
But Ol' Man River,
He jes' keeps rollin' along
You an' me, we sweat an' strain,
Body all achin' an' racked wid pain -
Tote that barge and
You show a little grit and
You lands in jail...
But I keeps laffin' instead of cyrin'
I must keep fightin';
Until I'm dyin'
And Ol' Man River,
He just keeps rollin' along
Original lyrics printed here are based upon those from the libretto for the recording of Jerome Kern's Show Boat, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein 2nd. Hayes Middlesex England: EMI Records Lmtd.1988. Robeson's changes are based upon the Exhibition Catalog, Paul Robeson: Bearer of a Culture. New York: The Paul Robeson Foundation, 1998
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