Social Realism: Bob Dylan And Paul Robeson (Part II)

By Larry Fyffe

Songs sung by the late and great Paul Robeson have a tremendous impact on singer/songwriter Bob Dylan:

Well, I don't know how it happened
But the riverboat captain, he knows my fate
But everybody else, even yourself
They just gonna have to wait

(Bob Dylan: Absolutely Sweet Marie)

 ‘Show Boat’ is a musical play, a Romantic look at the past that’s juxtaposed with a Social Realist one that deals with the plight of ordinary people. The stage play is made into a movie, starring Paul Robeson as stevedore Joe and Charles Winninger as riverboat captain Andy Hawks.

Life on the Mississippi riverboat is a lot like a circus – you laugh – but, believe it or not, there are serious problems to contend with – you cry. The play and movie, based on a novel by Edna Ferber, mixes light-hearted entertainment with dark socio-economic issues, like racism. 

The white characters on board the boat and the black ones on shore play their cards and take their chances. God’s river, however, is quite disinterested – it cares not who is happy or who is sad; who lives or or who dies:

I gets weary, and sick of tryin'
I'm tired of livin', and scared of dyin'
But Ol' Man River, he just keeps rollin' along

(Paul Robeson: Ol’ Man River~ Kerm et al/Show Boat)

Reflected in the following song lyrics:

Why only yesterday, I saw somebody on the street
Who just couldn't help but cry
Oh, this ol' river keeps on rollin' though

(Bob Dylan: Watching The River Flow)

Robeson usually records songs that have a Social Realist tinge to them in that they deal with the psychological trials and economic tribulations associated with the human urge for sex, and the desire for love, and acceptance:

Lindy, did you smell that honeysuckle vine last night?
Honey, he was smellin' so sweet in the moonlight
Clingin' round my cabin door
Reckon it's 'cause he loves you so
Honey, that's the way I love you
Mah Lindy Lou, Lindy Lou
I'd lay right down and die
If I could be as sweet as that to you

(Paul Robeson: Mah Lindy Lou ~ Strickland)

Robeson’s wishful sentiment is echoed by Dylan in the lines below:

Some of us turn off the lights and we live
In the moonlight shootin' by
Some of us scare ourselves to death in the dark
To be where the angels fly
Pretty maids all in a row lined up
Outside my cabin door
I've never wanted any of'em wantin' me
'Cept the girl from the Red River Shore

(Bob Dylan: Red River Shore)

For some writers, modern times are moving too fast – all but gone and forgotten are riverboats, and horse-drawn wagons; for others, the train of progress is coming up around the bend too slow:

Trains rushin' here and there
Flying machines flashin' through the air
Automobiles all shining and new
Poor people with nothing else to do
But when I wanna travel
To the soil I plead
I climb on my wagon and see
Wagon wheels, wagon wheels
Keep on turnin' wagon wheels
Roll along, sing your song
Carry me over the hill

(Paul Robeson: Wagon Wheels ~ Hill and DeRose)

Afro-American civil rights activist Paul Robeson stands and sings on the back of a flatbed truck strattled across the Canadian border when his passport is taken from him by government authorities.

Akin to poet Walt Whitman, some artists, because of its advanced technologies, consider modern times, at least in certain aspects, better than the  ‘good ol’ days’:

So rock me, momma, like a wagon wheel
Rock me, momma, any way you feel
Hey momma, rock me
Oh, rock me, momma, like the wind and rain
Rock me, momma, like a south-bound train
Hey momma, rock me

(Bob Dylan: Wagon Wheel)

What else is here?

An index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

There is an alphabetic index to the 550+ Dylan compositions reviewed on the site which you will find it here.  There are also 500+ other articles on different issues relating to Dylan.  The other subject areas are also shown at the top under the picture.

We also have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook which mostly relates to Bob Dylan today.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *