Hymns & Spirituals

Patriotic Odes

Minstrels & Musicals

Protest Songs


Audio Clips

"Ol’ Man River"
Robeson, Paul. Songs of Free Men. MHK 63223. Sony Classical, 1997 [Recorded 1947]. CD 756

QuickTime   MP3

Minstrels & Musicals: Anything Goes

Comic opera, operetta, music hall songs, minstrel shows, vaudeville and burlesques--all these dramatic traditions influenced the creation of the musical. The early musical comedies of the 1890s primarily featured popular songs inserted into light comic or romantic plots. However, as the genre matured, problematic and difficult subjects found their way into the musical. Suddenly, issues of racism, ethnic conflict and societal ills confronted the musical genre. Simultaneously, the songs and the music itself became integrated with plot, dialog, and dance.

Kern, Jerome. Ol' Man River. Lyric by Oscar Hammerstein, 2nd. New York: T.B. Harms, 1927.

From the Laburnum Library
presented by the family of John Stewart Bryan.

One of the most influential musicals of the twentieth century, Show Boat shattered Broadway stereotypes by introducing the issues of marital conflict and racial prejudice. In "Ol' Man River," Joe voiced the frustration and despair of the Black laborer.

Kaufman, George S., and Morrie Ryskind. Of Thee I Sing. Lyric by Ira Gershwin. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1932.

From the Clifton Waller Barrett
Library of American Literature.

Set to music by George Gershwin, Of Thee I Sing became the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize. Its satirical political theme centered on the absurdities of a presidential election continues to resonate today. However, the show's allusions to an elite of "Blue Shirts" in a time when Fascist Black Shirts and Nazi Brown Shirts appeared daily in the newspapers helped to hasten the musical's demise. After encountering such a negative reaction, neither George nor Ira Gershwin ever returned to political subjects in their musicals.

Rodgers, Richard. South Pacific. Lyric by Oscar Hammerstein, 2nd. New York: Random House, 1949.

Gift of Walter Butterfield Rathbun.

Despite a traditional romantic story line, South Pacific contained an underlying theme of racial bigotry. In the song "You've Got to Be Taught," Lieutenant Cable explained to Emile how people learn to hate.

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