“Look at dat little gal shuffle!”: Magnolia Dances into Her Sex

Show Boat at The Glimmerglass Festival 2019. Photo: Karli Cadel.

This piece first appeared as a blog post on The Glimmerglass Festival’s website. Read it there.

Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat may truly be the first musical to unify script and song, with the musical numbers driving the narrative. Dance, however, does not find its equal footing in storytelling on Broadway until Agnes de Mille’s choreography for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, the first integrated book musical. Though Sammy Lee’s original choreography for Show Boat did not withstand the test of time, dance still serves a purpose in furthering plot and character in the musical.

The first dance break in Show Boat comes during “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” a black folk song that mixed-race leading lady Julie sings to Magnolia, the daughter of Captain Andy. Magnolia confesses her first crush to Julie, but Julie warns Magnolia to tread cautiously out of fear that she will fall too quickly and too deeply in love. Magnolia has heard Julie sing this song many times before, but this is the first time she personally relates to the song. In this moment of sexual awakening, Magnolia embodies her new self-awareness and sexual desires by dancing the shuffle with the African-American dockworkers.

The shuffle originates from enslaved West Africans living in colonial North America. Lacking a common language, slaves used music and dance to communicate with each other and preserve their histories. Many plantation owners outlawed dancing. Since dancing was defined as lifting one’s foot off the ground, some slave communities circumvented this rule by shuffling their feet. Many traditional African-American dances feature the shuffle along with other movements.

Though the human body is not limited to specific movements based on race, the body and its movements are racialized. The shuffle and other dances became one identifier of what white Europeans considered “African primitivism.” As Colleen Dunagan and Roxane Fenton write, “Reaching back to the period of slavery, Euro-Americans both distanced themselves from and were fascinated with African American music and dance. The trope of the primitive identified particular characteristics that were in conflict with middle- and upper-class European social and religious norms, and associated them with Africans, African Americans, and their cultural forms.” Euro-Americans considered blacks to be libidinous and sexually promiscuous, therefore not as “evolved” or “refined” as whites. White people continuously used this idea of the African primitive to justify racism and oppress black people for years.

The shuffle held associations of hyper-sexuality ascribed to the black bodies that performed it. As Magnolia begins to mature into womanhood, she finds her footing in the shuffle, mapping that sexuality – and its corresponding blackness – onto her body. Unlike the black dockworkers also reveling in song and dance, Magnolia can cast off her assumed blackness and its oppressed state; once the dance ends, she resumes her whiteness and its privileges.

But for a brief moment, racial differences between Magnolia and the dockworkers are elided through dance. Such is the paradox of social dance: its ability to both build community and erase the boundaries that differentiate groups, as Camille A. Brown explains. In social dance, a strong potential exists for greater cultural empathy. Magnolia may use the shuffle to safely explore and embody her gender and sexuality, but the dance also brings her closer to Julie and the black workers. Magnolia later begs her father to keep Julie on the boat despite Julie’s mixed race posing a legal threat to his business. Though the musical may employ the African primitive trope, Magnolia’s act of advocacy must have been radical at Show Boat’s premiere in 1927 and still resonates in our racially-charged America today.

Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Song

Show Boat at The Glimmerglass Festival 2019. Photo: Karli Cadel.
Show Boat at The Glimmerglass Festival 2019. Photo: Karli Cadel.

This piece first appeared as a blog post for The Glimmerglass Festival’s website. Read it there.

“Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” is one of many songs from Show Boat that lives on in popular memory, second only to the masterpiece “Ol’ Man River.” As Todd Decker writes in his book Who Should Sing “Ol’ Man River”?, “Black or white, male or female – anyone who sings ‘Ol’ Man River’ must confront and consider its charged racial content and activist history.” Though “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” does not have the same activist legacy, it does have a similar specific racial content that must be negotiated in performance, whether that’s within or outside of the context of the musical.

In Show Boat, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” plays a central role in the subplot surrounding Julie, the leading lady onboard. She reads as white, but her performance of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” hints at her mixed-race background. After Julie sings the chorus, Queenie, the boat’s black cook, immediately becomes suspicious, commenting that she has only heard black people sing that song.

Not only does Queenie draw a musical color line, but the music and lyrics of the song itself also suggest blackness. Hammerstein wrote the lyrics in a stereotypical black dialect, replacing th’s with d’s (“dat” for “that”), dropping the endings off of words (“lovin’” rather than “loving”), and intentionally misspelling words to approximate speech patterns (“sumpin,’” not “something”). Kern’s music also reflects what was considered a “black” sound: “many blue notes and a verse built on the twelve-bar blues realized in the full-voice quarter-note chords typical of bluesy Broadway songs at the time,” as Decker explains in Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical.

It’s up to the singer to decide how to perform the song. Black American jazz singers Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday both opt for a more standard pronunciation than Hammerstein’s written dialect, but they retain a bluesy vocal tone; Charlotte Church, a white Welsh recording artist, does the opposite. Though none of these singers completely rid the song of its color, their choices create different effects. To fully deviate from the inscribed blackness of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” erases the racial tension between performer and song that makes the piece so crucial to the story. Without its racialized content and delivery, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” fails to signify blackness; it is simply a musical number.

We see this shift later in Act II. Julie’s white friend Magnolia uses “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” as her audition song for the Trocadero nightclub in Chicago. Though she grew up hearing it as a black folk song, Magnolia sings it squarely on the beat, pitch-perfect, at a drowsy lento tempo. Her approach fails to impress the nightclub owner, so she attempts the song again as a rag: lively, syncopated, rollicking. Ironically, the club prefers “Can’t Help” in another black musical idiom – ragtime – in order to prove the song’s (and Magnolia’s) viability as palatable entertainment for (presumably) white audiences.

During Magnolia’s audition, Julie quits the Trocadero and exits the musical altogether, taking with her the song’s original black folk context. Julie’s exit opens a job for Magnolia at the nightclub and opens the song to anyone’s interpretation and appropriation. The country’s racial issues still remain, even if the song itself is no longer racialized.

90 years later, our country continues to grapple with race relations. Renowned singers of various backgrounds have since performed the song, including Lena HorneBarbra StreisandAnnie LennoxKiri Te Kanawa and Natalie ColeBjörk and Cher. See what choices each singer made to navigate the song’s intrinsic blackness.