James A. Bailey

I gits weary
An' sick of tryin'
I'm tired of livin'
And scared of dyin'
But Ol' Man River
He just keeps rollin' along.

Jerome Kern

Jerome Kern. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

These lines by Oscar Hammerstein II climax what is probably the most famous song from the most famous work of the American musical theater. But the melody, drawing upon the cadences and harmonies of gospel hymns and the blues, is even more widely known than the lyrics, and has achieved the status of an American folk anthem. Its composer was native New Yorker Jerome Kern, and he wrote "Ol' Man River" and the other immortal songs from Showboat at the piano in his home in northeast Yonkers.

The son of Jewish immigrants from Germany and Czechoslovakia, Kern grew up in New York City and Newark, New Jersey. He went to work for a music publisher at the age of 17 and soon began composing songs for Broadway shows. At that time, in the early 1900s, European-style operettas still dominated the musical stage. Operettas were like operas; their music tended to be sophisticated and vocally demanding. But Kern, Hammerstein and their contemporaries favored shows with easy-to-sing melodies and catchy, contemporary lyrics—not operettas but musical comedies.

Kern's first hit song was "They Didn't Believe Me," from The Girl from Utah of 1915. In the next decade, several of his songs became popular standards, including "Till the Clouds Roll By," from Oh, Boy! (1917), "Look for the Silver Lining," from Sally (1920), and "Who?" from Sunny (1925). Then, in 1927, Kern and Hammerstein made a major breakthrough with Showboat. Songs such as "(Only) Make Believe," "Can't Help Lovin' That Man," and "Ol' Man River" were not only appealing in themselves, they were essential parts of the drama.

In the 1930s, Kern continued to produce classic songs such as "I've Told Every Little Star" and "The Song is You," from Music in the Air (1932), "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," from Roberta (1933) and "All the things You Are," from Very Warm for May (1939). In his later years, Kern also produced many scores for movies. His last hit was "Long Ago and Far Away," from the movie Cover Girl (1945).

Sheet Music from "Showboat"

The original sheet music for "Ol' Man River" from Showboat.

Although he had virtually no formal training, Kern's melodies were often musically subtle and complex, and became increasingly so as his career progressed. He was deeply worried, for example, that "All the Things You Are," with its key changes and unorthodox harmonies, would prove too difficult for the general public, but it immediately became one of his greatest successes, even though the show it was written for was a flop.

Life in Westchester

Born and raised in New York City, Kern nonetheless moved as early as he could to the suburbs. In 1916 he and his British-born wife, Eva, rented a house at the corner of Sagamore and Avon roads in Bronxville, which Kern called his "bungalow." The following year, they bought property in the relatively new subdivision of Cedar Knolls, which is across the Bronx River in northeast Yonkers but still considered part of the Bronxville community. There they built a comfortable Colonial Revival home, with a studio where Kern composed his music.

During the 20 years that Kern lived in the Bronxville area he was very much part of the village scene. In 1928 the Bronxville newspaper reported that he had brought together a star-studded cast, including the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, Ed Wynn, Eddie Cantor and Oscar Shaw, for a fundraiser to help raise money for the War Memorial that is now located in front of the Bronxville School. The paper went on to say that Kern's "own contributions at the piano drew the largest audience that ever gathered in our village."

Jerome Kern's home in Yonkers

Jerome Kern's home on Dellwood Road in Cedar Knolls, Yonkers. Courtesy Patrick Raftery.

The book Building a Suburban Village, Bronxville, New York, 1898-1998, relates this wonderful story told by village resident Bud Hansen about Kern:

[Set designer Edward A.] Morange and Kern often played pool together in a basement billiard room at 135 Park Avenue. Suddenly inspired one evening, Kern ran upstairs to the grand piano and devised the melody of his famous hit, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." Later in the evening, as the billiard game continued, Kern heard the song being played. He once again raced upstairs to find Morange's son Leonard at the piano. "Stop playing that song," Kern told him. "I haven't composed it yet."

The Kerns remained in Cedar Knolls until 1937, when Kern's increasing concentration on movie scores compelled them to move to Beverly Hills.

Kern returned to New York in the fall of 1945 to discuss composing the score for a new Broadway musical about the famous sharpshooter Annie Oakley. He didn't live to undertake this project and the music for Annie Get Your Gun was later completed by his friend Irving Berlin. On November 5, Kern collapsed from a stroke, from which he never recovered. On the afternoon of November 11, Oscar Hammerstein was at his bedside as Kern drifted in and out of consciousness. Hammerstein sang him one of his favorite songs from their long collaboration:

I've told ev'ry little star
Just how sweet I think you are.
Why haven't I told you?

As he finished, he realized that his dear friend Jerry Kern was gone.