Lyricist Versus Composer: The Song “Ol’ Man River”

Oscar Hammerstein II? Dorothy Hammerstein? Leonard Lyons?

Dear Quote Investigator: The division of credit between music composers and lyricists can be controversial. Some lyricists believe that their song writing skills are not given adequate respect. One vivid anecdote revealed the unhappiness of Dorothy Hammerstein who was the wife of the prominent Broadway song creator Oscar Hammerstein II.

During an extravagant New York gala Dorothy overheard a man effusively praising the song “Ol’ Man River”. The man’s remarks concluded with acclaim for the genius of Jerome Kern. Dorothy stepped forward and responded energetically:

Jerome Kern wrote ‘dum, dum, dum-dum’. My husband wrote “Ol’ Man River”.

Would you please explore the provenance of this tale?

Quote Investigator: The song “Ol’ Man River” was included in the 1927 theatrical production “Show Boat”. The earliest evidence of this story schema located by QI was published in the gossip column of Leonard Lyons in 1949; however, the aggrieved response was from Oscar Hammerstein II instead of his wife. Boldface has been added to excerpts. The ellipsis was present in the original text:[ref] 1949 October 31, The Canton Repository, Broadway Gazette by Leonard Lyons, (Syndicated, Dateline: New York), Quote Page 18, Column 5, Canton, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

Jules Styne, the composer of “High Button Shoes” and the forthcoming “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” was discussing the popular tendency to ascribe a hit song only to the composer and neglect the lyricist. He told of the time a series of Kern-Hammerstein songs were referred to as “Jerome Kern’s hits,” at a dinner where Oscar Hammerstein was to speak … “I guess that when Jerry Kern wrote the ‘Show Boat’ songs, they came out like this,” said Hammerstein, who then hummed “Old Man River,” and ran his fingers over his lips to produce a dribbling sound.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1960 Leonard Lyons revisited the tale, and interestingly, Dorothy Hammerstein was credited with the response extolling her husband’s contribution. It was possible that both Oscar and Dorothy made similar remarks:[ref] 1960 August 29, The Salt Lake Tribune, Leonard Lyons’ The Lyons Den: Wrong Address for Oscar? Only Fair, Quote Page 13, Column 8, Salt Lake City, Utah. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

Mrs. Hammerstein, of course, always has been a determined spokeswoman for the importance of the lyric. When she heard a guest at a party say that Jerome Kern wrote “Ol’ Man River,’ she dissented: “Mr. Kern did not write ‘Ol’ Man River.’ Oscar wrote ‘Ol’ Man River.'” Then she hummed the melody: “What Mr. Kern wrote was ‘La-La-Dumdum, La-La-Dumdum.'”

Also in 1960 the syndicated columnist Robert C. Ruark presented the anecdote:[ref] 1960 September 2, The Post-Standard, Hammerstein Was Earthy by Robert C. Ruark, (Syndicated), Section 2, Quote Page 15, Column 2, Syracuse, New York. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

And while you can’t knock the composers for their tunes, Dorothy Hammerstein had it right when she said “Jerome Kern wrote the dum-dum-dums, but Oscar Hammerstein wrote ‘Show Boat'” And so he did.

In 1961 “The San Diego Union” of San Diego, California published an instance of the tale:[ref] 1961 January 15, The San Diego Union, Point of View: Both George and Ira Created The Gershwin Years; But, Sadly, Who Ever Remembers The Lyricist? by Donald Freeman (The San Diego Union’s Radio-TV Editor), Section: TV Week, Quote Page 2, Column 1, San Diego, California. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

He’s the neglected man of music, the lyricist. Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein used to say, just a bit ruefully: “Everyone always talks about Jerome Kern’s ‘Old Man River.’ But Jerry Kern only wrote ‘dum dum dum dum.’ My husband wrote the words that fit those notes—’Old Man River.’ Nobody stops to remember that.”

Leonard Lyons found the story compelling, and he placed it in his column again in 1970:[ref] 1970 August 8, The Post-Standard, Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Syracuse, New York. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

The widow of Oscar Hammerstein 2d would rage against the practice of listing only the composer and ignoring the lyricist. One night in New York, Dorothy Hammerstein heard a man refer to one of the memorable hits from “Showboat” as Jerome Kern’s “Ol’ Man River.”

Mrs. Hammerstein said, “Kern wrote this,” then she hummed and ran her fingers over her lips. She continued, “But Oscar wrote this,” then sang the lyric.

In 1999 “The Broadway Sound: The Autobiography and Selected Essays of Robert Russell Bennett” was released. Bennett provided orchestration for the musical “Showboat”. He observed and participated in the genesis of the song “Ol’ Man River”. Initially, Jerome Kern gave to Bennett the music without lyrics:[ref] 1999, The Broadway Sound: The Autobiography and Selected Essays of Robert Russell Bennett, Volume 12, Series: Eastman studies in music, Author: Robert Russell Bennett, Editor: George Joseph Ferencz, Publisher: University Rochester Press, Chapter 5, Quote Pages 98 and 98 (Google Books Preview)[/ref]

It was thirty-two not wholly convincing measures that sounded to me like they wanted to be wanted. In the first place it starts with two harmonically powerful and self-reliant bars and then comes to a mud puddle and doesn’t know where to put its feet for the next two. Perhaps that isn’t important, but to a musical snob it is.

Anyhow the Muse of Music never spat at either Jerry or me for not finding the chords that should have been there. I found some rather nice fills for the ends and phrases and didn’t worry about it until a few days later when I looked at it with Oscar Hammerstein’s words written in. I didn’t worry about it then either–just said to Jerry, “Gee, that’s a great song!”

Kern said, “You didn’t say that when I gave it to you.” He knew as well as I did that it wasn’t a song at all until Oscar came in with the words.

In conclusion, QI believes that the quip about the song “Ol’ Man River” was probably spoken by both Oscar Hammerstein II and his wife Dorothy. They may have commiserated together about the inadequate recognition of lyricists.

(Great thanks to Fred R. Shapiro whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to discussion participants: Barbara Schmidt, Sue Kamm, S. M. Colowick, Nancy Jo Leachman, John Cowan, Dennis Cunniff, and Sylvia Milne.)

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