Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man
"Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" with music by Jerome Kern, and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, is one of the most famous songs from their classic 1927 musical play Show Boat, adapted from Edna Ferber's novel.
The song, written in a blues tempo, is sung in the show by several characters, but is most closely associated with the character Julie, the biracial leading lady of the showboat "Cotton Blossom". It is Julie, who is first heard singing the song – to Magnolia, the daughter of Cap'n Andy Hawks and his wife Parthenia (Parthy), owners of the show boat. In the musical's plot, the number is supposed to be a song familiar to African-Americans for years, and this provides one of the most dramatic moments in the show. When Queenie, the black cook, comments that it is strange that light-skinned Julie knows the song because only black people sing it, Julie becomes visibly uncomfortable. Later, we learn that this is because Julie is "passing" as white – she and her white husband are guilty of miscegenation under the state's law.
Immediately after Julie sings the song through once, Queenie chimes in with her own lyrics to it, and she is joined by her husband Joe, the black stevedore on the boat. This is followed by Julie, Queenie, Magnolia, Joe, and the black chorus all performing a song-and-dance to the number.
Repeated during Show Boat
The last refrain of the song is briefly reprised at the end of the first act by the ensemble, as Magnolia and riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal enter a local church to get married.
The song makes one last appearance in Act II of the show, when Magnolia uses it as an audition piece while trying to get a job as a singer in the Trocadero nightclub after Ravenal has deserted her. From backstage, Julie, now the featured star there after having been forced to leave the show boat by the local sheriff, hears Magnolia sing the song. Now an alcoholic as a result of having been abandoned by her own husband, Julie secretly quits her job so that the manager, in dire need of a singer for New Year's Eve, will have no choice but to hire Magnolia.
History of performances
"Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" was extremely associated with 1920s torch singer Helen Morgan, who played Julie in the original 1927 stage production of Show Boat, as well as the 1932 revival and the 1936 film version. While Morgan was alive, she "owned" the song as much as Judy Garland owned "Over the Rainbow" (from The Wizard of Oz). However, Morgan died prematurely in 1941, her recordings are seldom played or reissued today, her films are infrequently seen, and the 1936 film version of Show Boat was taken completely out of circulation in 1942 to make way for MGM's 1951 remake, which featured Ava Gardner as Julie (with singing dubbed by Annette Warren). Therefore, modern audiences unfamiliar with the 1936 film have most likely never heard Helen Morgan's performance of the song. Another singer who had a big hit with it was Lena Horne, who sang it in the Jerome Kern biopic Till the Clouds Roll By, and could have easily played Julie in MGM's Show Boat had the studio not been nervous about casting her in the role.
Partial song lyrics
The lyrics are under copyright, but limited portions can be repeated for critical analysis (see educational source for entire song). The words of the song emphasize an intense love, regardless of his money or accomplishment, as a force of nature likened to fish born to swim, or birds driven to fly. Within the play, the song is introduced as mixed along with the dialog:
- (JULIE sings...)
- Fish got to swim, birds got to fly,
- I gotta love one man till I die,
- Can't help lovin' dat man of mine.
- (MAGNOLIA recognizes the song):
- That's it...
- (QUEENIE, re-entering, stops in her tracks and appears puzzled.)
- (JULIE continues singing...)
- Tell me he's lazy, tell me he's slow,
- Tell me I'm crazy (maybe I know)
- Can't help lovin' dat man of mine.
- (QUEENIE questions how would white people know the song):
- How come y'all know dat song?
- (...remainder omitted due to copyright restrictions...)
Later verses lament that when he goes away, she is sad until he returns.
In its own way, the song is almost as controversial as the song "Ol' Man River" (also from Show Boat) because of some phrases, though its lyrics have caused less of an uproar because the "offensive" portion is sung not by Julie but by Queenie, and is therefore not usually heard outside the show. In her section of the song, Queenie sings about Joe:
- My man is shiftless,
- An' good for nothin', too.
- He's my man just the same.
- He's never 'round here
- When there is work to do,
- He's never 'round here when there's workin' to do.
This lyric was included in every production of Show Boat up until 1966, except for the 1951 film version, in which this section of the song was simply omitted. In the 1966 Lincoln Center production of the show, produced during the height of the Civil Rights era, this part of the lyric was completely rewritten by an uncredited writer to avoid any controversy, and it has remained that way ever since – except in the now-famous EMI 3-CD album set of Show Boat, released in 1988. The revised lyric went:
- My man's a dreamer,
- He don't have much to say
- He's my man just the same
- Instead o' workin,
- He sits and dreams all day,
- Instead o' workin', he'll be dreamin' all day.
The 1951 film version of Show Boat went even one step further than the 1966 stage revival in "smoothing out" any "edginess" about the song, by omitting all reference to it as one sung for years by African-Americans, and thereby omitting the section in which Queenie remarks that it is strange for Julie to know the song. In the 1951 film, the song is simply a love song Julie sings about her husband Steve, not a folk tune. Lena Horne also sings it this way in Till the Clouds Roll By.
- Billie Holiday's version is perhaps the most-recognized, recorded in 1937.
- Shirley Bassey for the 1959 British studio cast album of Show Boat.
- Carol Bruce and other members of the cast of the 1946 revival of Show Boat
- June Christy - Cool Christy (2002)
- Ella Fitzgerald, in the 1963 Verve release, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Jerome Kern Songbook
- Bud Freeman & The Summa Cum Laude Orchestra (the lyrics, written from a female perspective, are sung by a man)
- Tess Gardella (the original Queenie in "Show Boat")
- Ava Gardner (her own singing voice is heard on the soundtrack album of the 1951 film version of Show Boat, but not in the actual film, where her singing was dubbed by Annette Warren)
- Björk Guðmundsdóttir & tríó Guðmundar Ingólfssonar on the album Gling-Gló
- Annette Hanshaw
- Lena Horne
- Cleo Laine and other members of the cast of the 1971 revival of Show Boat
- Lonette McKee and members of the Harold Prince revival of Show Boat
- Helen Morgan (1928 studio recording, the prologue to the 1929 film version of Show Boat, the studio recording released in conjunction with the 1932 revival, the 1936 film version, and several other recordings)
- Sandi Patty
- Marina Prior
- Trudy Richards
- Teresa Stratas and other cast members of the acclaimed 1988 studio cast recording of Show Boat
- Barbra Streisand
- Constance Towers and other members of the cast of the 1966 revival of Show Boat
- Annette Warren (on the compact disc version of the 1951 "Show Boat" soundtrack, where her rendition of the song is included along with Ava Gardner's))
- Margaret Whiting – Margaret Whiting Sings the Jerome Kern Songbook (1960)
- Gogi Grant – singing for Ann Blyth on the soundtrack of The Helen Morgan Story (1957).
- Lee Adam Wilshier on the album Lover Man (2008).
In contemporary popular culture
- The Trudy Richards recording features in the film "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" (1993).
- The song was performed by Megan Joy, a top 13 finalist, on Season Eight of American Idol.
- In season five of the British sitcom "Allo Allo!" Lieutenant Gruber sings a portion of the song to Rene.
Tom Lehrer, in his song "Pollution", uses the line "Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly". Another song of his, She's My Girl, begins with "Sharks gotta swim, and bats gotta fly, I gotta love one woman till I die."
In the Disney film Finding Nemo, one of the characters says "Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly".
Martin Mull opens his comedy recording Sex & Violins (1978) singing: "Birds gotta swim, Fish gotta fly".
- Kreuger, Miles Show Boat: The Story of a Classic American Musical, Oxford, 1977.