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)
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