From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)

"Ol Man River" / "Long Haired Mama"  Song Controversy

The song "Ol Man River," written in 1927, has been referred to as a Negro folk song and is credited to Jerome Kern for the music and Oscar Hammerstein II for the lyrics. There is also a claim that the song was originally written as "Long Haired Mama," by Maury Madison from Kentucky. Maury Madison [born William Renick Smith] and his parents are listed as white in the U.S. Federal Census. However, in 1959 The Commercial Appeal newspaper identified Maury Madison as a Negro who wrote "Ole Man River." The story was reprinted in various newspapers in the United States [sources: "Long-haired Mama," in The Florence Times, 10/10/1959, p. 4 and the Kentucky New Era, 10/06/1959, p. 4].

The song "Long-Haired Mama" had been written by Maury Madison in 1927 when he was living in Paris, France. According to Sigmund Spaeth, the song was copied as "Old Man River" and credited to Jerome Kern; it was the opening song to Kern and Hammerstein's musical, Show Boat, sung by Paul Robeson [source: "Says Negro, not Jerome Kern, wrote 'River'," Jet, 10/15/1959, p. 61]. The matter of who actually wrote the song was said to have been settled out of court with Maury Madison receiving $5,000 in compensation.

The story had actually come to light in 1933 in the New York Times when Spaeth, referred to as "The Tune Detective," noted that the song "Old Man River" was "a remarkable imitation of the real thing.... In 1927 there was published in Paris a song named 'Long Haired Mamma,' by Maury Madison, with the opening measures of its chorus practically identical with the corresponding part of 'Ol Man River.'" - - [source: O. E. Dunlap, Jr., "Trailing the Songs" within the article "100,000 Melodies are on tap for a network - The Tune Detective sleuths ten popular songs," New York Times, 10/8/1933, p. X11].  

The name Maury Madison was an alias for William Renick Smith, a musician and composer born in Paris, KY. His birthday is given as July 5, 1893 on the New York Passengers List (for the Immigration Authorities), dated 8/27/1931 on p. 55, No. 5. Madison had first applied for a passport in 1920 in Los Angeles, CA under the name William R. Smith [source: U.S. Passport Application #168772, dated 1/28/1920]. On his application, Smith said that he lived in Los Angeles and was a newspaper writer who would be leaving from New York on April 15, 1920 to travel abroad for six months to gather literary material from France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, and England. William Renick Smith's World War I draft registration card, completed May 24, 1917, says that he was a reporter at the Houston office of the Galveston News. During the 1920s, he would make several trips to Europe, and while abroad he published a number of songs written in both English and French, penned under the name of Maury Madison. One of his earliest songs, "By the Shenandoah," was published in 1913 in Dallas, TX, under the name William Renick Smith [available at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture Library]. 

The Maury Madison Papers, 1926-1950 are held at the University of Texas at Austin. The collection includes music written by Madison after his return to the U.S. in 1931 when he began writing music to accompany poems written by U.S. Presidents and their families. The collection also includes songs for the play Out of the Blue by Leslie Hollingsworth. In 1942, Maury Madison was noted as living in Winchester, KY when four of his songs were copyrighted: "We Shall Win" w Douglas McArthur and melody #23599; "Bataan Went Out Fighting" w Douglas McArthur #14933; "Glorious Old Banner" w William McKinley #10762; and "Harbor in Hawaii" #6287 [source: Catalog of Copyright Entries, Part 3, Musical Compositions, New Series, v. 37, Part 1, First Half of 1942, Nos. 1-5]. 

William Renick Smith [Maury Madison] was the son of Curtis Pendleton Smith (b. 1863) from Indiana, and Anna E. Renick Smith (b. 1866) from Paris, KY.  The family left Kentucky around 1897 and lived in Dallas, TX, where Curtis P. Smith was a lawyer and served as Mayor of the city (1906-07) [source: City Mayors of the City of Dallas]. Curtis Pendleton Smith died in Dallas on February 20, 1919 [source: Texas Death Index]. 

By 1920, William Renick and his mother were living in Los Angeles. They both applied for passports in 1920 to visit Europe, both returning to the U.S. on August 9, 1920 aboard the Kaiserin Auguste Victoria [source: List of United States Citizens (for the Immigration Authorities), p. 11, No. 3]. William Renick and his mother traveled together making several trips to Europe during the 1920s. His mother, Anna E. Renick Smith, died in Winchester, KY on March 17, 1956 [source: Kentucky Death Index]. William Renick Smith also died in Winchester, September 30, 1961 [source: Kentucky Death Index].  William Renick Smith and his parents are buried in the Paris Cemetery in Paris, KY. No official documents have been found that indicate William Renick Smith [Maury Madison] was African American.

Kentucky County & Region

Read about Bourbon County, Kentucky in Wikipedia.
Read about Clark County, Kentucky in Wikipedia.

Kentucky Place (Town or City)

Read about Paris, Kentucky in Wikipedia.
Read about Winchester, Kentucky in Wikipedia.

Item Relations

Cite This NKAA Entry:

“"Ol Man River"/"Long Haired Mama" Song Controversy,” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed April 21, 2024,

Last modified: 2024-01-05 15:14:16