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A musical interlude

June 2, 2019

I grew up in a Protestant tradition that put a lot of emphasis on singing. Now, my particular branch of that tradition was almost entirely a capella (or a cappella, if you prefer the Latin version), but throughout the greater tradition there remained an emphasis on music, especially singing. (FWIW, I have no interest in revisiting tired and pointless arguments re: which sort of music is “right” for worship. I’ve been down that road…won’t go back) Anyway…

I always wanted to be a bass. Never made it. As it turns out, I’m a baritone whose voice tends toward the lower end of that range (what one of my sons calls a “bassotone”). I’ve learned to live, rather happily, in my comfortable range, though I could use greater control over my instrument. Many of the old-time crooners were baritones. They followed a strict rule, which I state this way: “Never, ever leave your most comfortable, most resonant range. Ever.”

Which brings me to a song many people now arguably find offensive. While I don’t care for the Showboat version of Old Man River (the inclusion of the chorus really ruins the song for me, whether its the William Warfield version or the Paul Robeson version), both artists did a fine job.


Both would have been even better, I think, in the absence of a chorus. But, it was a Broadway production and then a MGM musical, so a chorus was pretty much de rigueur for the time. To suggest the song has “racially charged” content is to understate the obvious. People have dealt with the content in various ways. My preference for songs is for them to be sung, at least most of the time, the way they’re written. Thus, Gordon McRae’s (of Oklahoma! fame) treatment of the song*, shearing it of the lyrics he (or maybe his producers) perhaps found offensive, turns a great song into pablum.

Really? What is this crap?

On the other hand, here’s a version I enjoy a great deal, at least in part because, as sung, it falls within my vocal range. It also, blessedly, lacks the MGM chorus.


*Note: If you’re going to argue some version of “white people shouldn’t sing this song,” then I urge you to seriously consider the implications of that argument in light of who wrote the song.

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