Bad Choice

A voice instructor at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif., Louis Lebherz, was reprimanded after using the original lyrics of “Old Man River” in a voice class in March. According to an article by Matt Krupnick in the Contra Costa Times:

College leaders said Monday the incident called into question Louis Lebherz’s future at the school. The musician already has been forced to apologize to the class and to complete diversity training, said Beth Dobkin, the college’s provost.

“It already has, but I can’t tell you to what extent,” Dobkin said. “We’re continuing to discuss our future relationship with him.”

This is Paul Robeson performing the song in 1936:

In updated performances, “lordy,” “mama,” “brothers” or “dear ones” often replace “darkies.” “Darkies” itself replaces “niggers,” the original word used in the song as written Oscar Hammerstein for the musical Show Boat in 1927.

While Lebherz’s decision to use the original version of the song is perhaps justifiable on some level, the news is deeply uncomfortable for St. Mary’s, which has apparently been struggling in the last few years to attract more minority students.

According to the Krupnick article, in 2008 accreditors “criticized the school for having shoddy race relations and a lack of diversity.” About seven percent of the school’s 3,795 students are black.

Lebherz is, for now, an adjunct professor in St. Mary’s department of performing arts.

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer