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 Horne, Barbra Streisand, Annie Lennox, Kiri Te Kanawa and Natalie Cole, Björk and Cher. See what choices each singer made to navigate the song’s intrinsic blackness.