Sunday, May 11, 2008

Toting the barge, lifting the bale

Is it really two years since Francesca Zambello's production of Show Boat was at the Royal Albert Hall?

It was a spectacular by any standards: a brilliant and dynamic set by Peter J. Davidson, thrills and frills of costumes by Sue Wilmington, the RPO beyond the bow of the riverboat Cotton Blossom. Even the Mississippi River itself made a token appearance (courtesy of Thames Water, in that summer of drought). Not all the critics were impressed: this was the first staged musical at the RAH; and they felt it went over the top (which, perhaps, is the whole point of a musical):
Francesca Zambello's in-the-round staging of the story of the life and loves of a group of travelling actors on a Mississippi boat at the end of the 19th century is not so much Show Boat as a very slow boat. I'm astonished that opera works in this space, because a musical doesn't stand a chance. Zambello makes the mistake of simply trying to fill up the space: there are 70 in the cast and some big unwieldy bits of scenery. This Mississippi is actually wet. But the more she piles on the spectacle the more sketchy the production becomes, and I found myself uncharacteristically longing for a traditional proscenium arch.
One does not necessarily expect musical theatre to be also great drama (though Malcolm persists in annoying the purists and academics with his claims that Kiss Me Kate is a better play than Taming of the Shrew). Show Boat, however, deserves respect as the first and still one of the greatest musicals.

This memory was prompted when Malcolm was being driven up Branch Lane, Hampstead.

Being driven allows opportunity to rubber-neck. What caught Malcolm's eye was the Blue Plaque on 1-2 Branch Lane. Like the books Ted Heath didn't autograph, the houses in Hampstead without plates are the rare ones ...

This plaque is a factual statement:
Singer and Actor lived here 1929-1930
That means it was where Robeson lived while performing in the 1928 London premier of Show Boat.

One thinks of Robeson as the prototype Joe, the stevedore. Ol' Man River was written for him, and is eternally his song. Yet he did not do the rĂ´le in the original Broadway run (Florenz Ziegfeld had dithered over such a controversial production: Robeson had other catfish to fry). So London was Robeson's first production: of course he then did the 1932 Broadway revival, and the 1936 movie (where Robeson is listed fourth in the cast list, after such household names as Irene Dunne, Allan Jones and Charles Winninger). That film still features, quite properly, in the American Film Institute's list of the top musicals of all time.

So, as happens on such occasions, Malcolm went rootling.

And discovered that he does not have Robeson as "Joe" -- but was able to find it on Youtube (that's the better audio) or even as a film clip (which is the real tear-jerker):
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.
In that search, something far better showed up, however.

Look what's here: Smithsonian Folkways SF 40026 -- Don't Mourn: Organize! Track 5: Joe Hill:

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
Alive as you or me.
Said I, "But, Joe, you're ten years dead."
"I never died," said he.

Fine, fine, but it's too clinical. Robeson is too much of a gentleman to give it the full anger.
  • Later, Joannie took the song to Woodstock, and fed a spoonful of sugar to the children: that, too, misses the point.
  • Far better is Luke Kelly doing his near-best: Kelly has gut-felt, rock-hard principle, but his version trips over the narrow line into becoming a trifle too twangy and pub-Oirish.
  • Even more effective is Phil Ochs, who does the whole thing, all stanzas, which makes it a museum's display-piece rather than a rabble-rouser (which is what we came for): so polite applause.
  • Higher still up the scale is Billy Bragg, opening that same Folkways disc, again doing the full Monty. Here, the use of the banjo allows the vocal to dominate -- at least in the opening part. The whole shares some of the draw-backs of the Phil Ochs version. Strangely, Bragg never quite works up the bitter froth of his full anger here.
The song should never be reduced to a historical document: it needs to remain an active force in the cause of long-downtrodden man. The Youtube video derived from Bragg is a bit tricksy, but does the business.

The fountainhead here has to be Utah Phillips, track 13 on the We Have Fed You All for a Thousand Years album. What makes this one different stems from Phillips's spoken introduction, remembering living and working in Salt Lake City, and giving the song, when it comes, a personal and moral perspective:
... workin' in State service, as a rat in the basement. Oh, yeah: I used to come to work at eight o'clock every morning, and take the basement stairs down, and the Governor'd take the stairs up, and we'd shake hands as we passed each other in the hall. My! My! Kind of thing that drives you crazy.
He recalls walking "up 21st South and 13th East", on the site where Sugarhouse Prison had been. He had seen the plan in the archives at the Capitol building, and:
I could walk at midnight through that Park and I could stand right on the spot where that white kitchen chair was that Joe Hill was tied to when he was shot. And I would look at the stars and look at the moon and wonder what the hell it was that I was doing with my life.

This posting has travelled a long, and unnecessary way from where it started. That is the self-indulgence that so many of his critics quite rightly lay against Malcolm's maunderings.

Others of us try to forgive the poor old thing: the mind may be going; but the heart's still in the right place.

He finally drags himself back to Robeson, and cranks up one last song: No More Auction Block for Me, the final track of the On My Journey collection:
No more auction block for me
No more peck of corn for me.
No more pint of salt for me.
No more driver’s lash for me.
No more hundred lash for me


And so, Malcolm has come full circle. All the way from where de lan' ain't free to a hyphenated-something American (descended from slave-owners, not from slaves) being the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, and the next President of the United States.

Whether Robeson would be supporting a "mainstream" candidate (Obama or Clinton) is very much a different question.

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yourcousin said...

Maybe you won't believe me but yesterday I was trying to convince another carpenter to sing "Ole Man River" for me at work and when he wouldn't do it I decided to go home and download it. But before I did that, I did my usual round of news and blogs and what do I find? Malcolm blogging on the very song I was thinking of and throwing in my old union to boot. Crazy world indeed.

Malcolm Redfellow said...

When I start these late-night stream-of-consciousness things, I even surprise myself with the directions they take.

Even I thought it was over-the-top to segue from Kern-Hammerstein to Earl Robinson dreaming of dead Joe Hill.

It's how we get our kicks, I guess, while we wait for the revolution to begin.

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