Ol’ Man River and Wilson the Volleyball; Two Spiritual, Secular Icons

Two works of entertainment, popular in their day, offer us a glimpse of physical objects that carry certain spiritual characteristics while remaining mostly un-godlike.

The first is a river.

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?

Paul Robeson singing

Paul Robeson singing “Ol Man River” in the 1936 film of Show Boat

Ol’ man river,
Dat ol’ man river
He mus’ know sumpin’
But don’t say nuthin’
He jus’ keeps rollin’
He keeps on rollin’ along….

You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain,
Body all achin’ an’ rack’d wid pain,
Tote dat barge!
Lif’ dat bale!
Git a little drunk
An’ you land in jail.

Ah gits weary
An’ sick of tryin’
Ah’m tired of livin’
An’ skeered of dyin’
But ol’ man river,
He jes’ keeps rollin’ along.

The 1927 sheet music for

The 1927 sheet music for “Ol Man River” 

“Ol’ Man River”––the classic lament of hard labor, racism, and indifference––might read like a Negro spiritual from the days of slavery, but it is not. It is a song from Show Boat, a musical written in 1927 and set in the 1920s, about a river boat that offers theatrical productions at towns along the water. “Ol’ Man River” is sung by one of the dock workers, Joe; here is Paul Robeson’s peerless performance of it from the 1936 film version. The lyrics were written by Broadway songwriter Oscar Hammerstein.

If “Ol’ Man River” is not an actual Negro spiritual, how might we describe it? Unlike traditional spirituals, the song includes very few biblical references—only to the judgment day when Joe will find rest and to another river, the Jordan, that he longs to cross. And Joe’s song is not a prayer, as are many spirituals and hymns; he is singing about the Mississippi, not to it.

But the song is spiritual in other, important ways. It is a vision of suffering. And it personifies the river as an all-knowing, constant, imperturbable companion. Although the river “don’ say nuthin’,” imagining it as a witness helps Joe feel less alone. The river is personified more than it is deified; the spirituality of “Ol’ Man River” is relatively non-theistic. It adapts the language and emotion of a Negro spiritual to create a secular hymn of sorrow. But it reminds us of how long humans have been animating the forces of nature to help manage their fears or understand what they could not control.

Wilson, Tom Hanks' companion in

Wilson, Tom Hanks’ companion in “Cast Away”

A personification similar to “ol’ man river” is Wilson, Tom Hanks’ volleyball in the film Cast Away. After a plane crash, Hanks’ character washes ashore on an uninhabited island along with cargo that includes a Wilson volleyball. Hanks draws its face with his bleeding hand. Over the ensuing years, he chats with Wilson, listens to it, yells at it, and finally weeps when it floats away from the raft that Hanks escapes on.

Like Joe’s all-knowing river, Wilson, in Hanks’ mind, seems wise. Unlike the mute river, though, and appropriately for a man alone on a deserted island, Wilson seems to listen and respond. Both works portray the emergence of a living persona in an object, a process that results from an individual’s suffering and the need for a reliable, wise—but not a notably supernatural or even sympathetic—companion.

Yet Joe’s river is, compared to the volleyball, a grander spiritual vision. The Mississippi is the witness for the exploitation and racism that fill not only Joe’s life but the lives of those around him. The Mississippi of the song is a transcendent presence and perhaps offers Joe the consolation that suffering and injustice are small pieces of a larger entity. Joe understands that the flow of the river, like the flow of time, does not stop for the struggles of anyone.

2 thoughts on “Ol’ Man River and Wilson the Volleyball; Two Spiritual, Secular Icons

  1. This fine post echoed one of my recent thoughts. One of our national radio stations (Radio 2 UK) has a regular section from guest speakers on “What makes us Human?”. There have been poets, writers, religious characters, and Richard Dawkins. They suggested that what makes us human is poetry, stories, God(s) and genes. Surprise!

    I’d like to suggest something completely different. What makes us human is other humans. It’s almost too obvious to say that babies and children develop through genetic unfolding but pick up their humanity, their social behaviour, from the humans around them. But step on a little to adolescence and fully adult humans. We continue to have connections with our friends, relatives and people we meet or hear about. Indeed we are also a little affected by our friends friends who we never meet directly. Our behaviour continues to be shaped by those connections. All that ‘humanity’ washes over us, and our humanity flows right back.

    And back to Ol’ Man River and Wilson. When we are lonely or castaway, or even on a hermitic retreat, we suffer from the lack of that flux of humanity washing over us and back. We are primarily social beings, not the brave individuals of popular thought. We personalise ‘dumb’ objects because it helps fill up the yearning for human connection, and it’s what makes books, radio, television and the interwebs ‘work’. That filling that yearning is what makes us human.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well put. I agree. It seems, as you say, that it’s not only other people per se that make us human here but our “filling that yearning” for the connection with them. I guess there can certainly be a dark side to such craving for relationship–gangs, armies, etc., any alliance or connection whose purpose is partly malevolent. Human connection seems usually but not always constructive.

    Liked by 1 person

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