Friday, January 17, 2014

The Black Roots Of The Folk Song "Oh Shenandoah", Part I

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part I of a three part series on the folk song "Oh Shenandoah". This post provides information about the origin of this song and a sound file of Paul Robinson singing that song.

Click for Part II of this series.

Part II provides transcripts of two 1930 "The Times" letters to the editor about "Oh Shenandoah" and one synopsis of another 1930 "Times" letter to the editor letter about that song.

Click for Part III of this series.

Part III provides comments about and lyrics to Caribbean songs that are derived from "Oh Shenandoah". These songs are known by the title "This World Of Misery", "Oh My Rolling River", "Solid Fas'" ("Solid Fast'), and other titles.

The content of this post is presented for folkloric, historical, cultural, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

FEATURED YOUTUBE EXAMPLE: Paul Robeson "Shenandoah"

Addiobelpassato Published on Dec 22, 2012

Paul Robeson sings "Shenandoah"
with piano

"Oh Shenandoah" (also called simply "Shenandoah", or "Across the Wide Missouri") is a traditional American folk song of uncertain origin, dating at least to the early 19th century. The song is number 324 in the Roud Folk Song Index, but is not listed amongst the Child Ballads.

Shenandoah was first printed[1] as part of William L. Alden's article "Sailor Songs", in the July 1882 issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine.[2][3]

The song had become popular as a sea chanty with sailors by the 1880s.[4]

...Sea Songs and Shanties, Collected by W.B. Whall, Master Mariner (First edition in Nov 1910), states that the song probably originated from American or Canadian "voyageurs", who were great singers. Thomas Moore drew inspiration from them in his Canadian Boat Song. The author further goes on and states that he heard it sung over fifty years prior to publishing the book, which place its origin at least a fair bit earlier than 1860. Besides sung at sea, this song figured in old public school collections. (info taken from page one in the sixth edition of the book)

...A Mr. J.E. Laidlaw of San Francisco reported hearing a version sung by a black Barbadian sailor aboard the Glasgow ship Harland in 1894, which went:

Oh, Shenandoah! I hear you calling!
Away, you rolling river!
Yes, far away I hear you calling,
Ha, Ha! I'm bound away across the wide Missouri.

My girl, she's gone far from the river,
Away, you rolling river!
An' I ain't goin' to see her never.
Ha, Ha! I'm bound away, " &c.

Music by Traditional; Text by Traditional
The origins of "Shenandoah," perhaps one of America's most recognizable folk tunes, are not so easily deciphered. Like many folk songs, it is impossible to determine exactly when the song was composed, yet the song probably did not originate later than the Civil War. In any case, by the end of the 19th century, "Shenandoah" had achieved widespread popularity, both on land and at sea.
…As unclear as the song's origin is, so is the definitive version and interpretation of its text. Some believe that the song refers to the river of the same name. Others suggest that it is of African-American origin, for it tells the tale of Sally, the daughter of the Indian Chief Shenandoah, who is courted for seven years by a white Missouri river trader. Regardless of these textual mysteries, "Shenandoah" remains an American classic.
by Library of Congress "

From "Origin: Shenandoah"
From: Barry Finn
Date: 04 Mar 98 - 07:23 PM
"...Scholars & collectors have yet to nail down it's origins. It's been collected by Lomax, Sandburg, Hugill, Whall, Bullen, Colcord, Doerflinger, Abrahams, Shay, Bone, etc,etc,etc. It's been found aboard ships as The Wide Missouri, The Wild Mizzourye, The World Of Misery-Solid Fas (West Indies, rowing shanty, although collected recently by Abrahams, it may be as old as most other versions), Shenandoah (& it's many spellings), The Oceanida, Rolling River. It's been claimed as a river song a sea shanty, a US Army song & by the cavalry & wagon soldiers, a song of the Caadian & American mountain men, traders, voyageurs & trappers. It's been the name of a few shanties, The Gals Of Dublin Town or The Harp Without The Crown or The Shenandoah, also The Saucy Arabella or The Davy Crockett or The Shenandoah. It's been used on board with the windlass, capstan, & winches for loading cargo. In the West Indian version, it was used at the oars while chasing the whale (Blackfish)."

From Bruce O.
Date: 05 May 98 - 08:23 PM
"JFSS, II, (#9), 1906.
II Chanties [collected by Annne Geddes Gilchrist]
Shangadore (Pumping Chanty) Sung by Mr. W. Bolton, Southport, Jan., 1906
O' Shang-ga-dore, I love your daughter, [solo
A-ray, ye rolling river! [Cho.
I love my grog.. much more than water, [solo
Ah-ha-ha! I'm bound away, Cross the wide Missouri [cho.
'Mr. Bolton refused to give me the rest of the words! .... Two versions, with variants of the tune, are given in an article by W. J. Alden in 'Harper's Magazine', 1882, and another under the title of "The Wide Missouri" in Tozer's 'Sailor's Songs'; another in a small collection of "Old Sea Chanties," by Messrs. Bradford and Fagge. The tune appears to be of negro origin; it is at least of negro character.....
[Now why wouldn't Mr. Bolton sing the rest of the words?]"

From: GUEST,leeneia
Date: 06 Aug 00 - 12:00 AM
"I went to a house concert abt 10 years ago where a man and wife named Nash sang songs of the sea. He was retired Navy, and they've been collecting for years. He sang a version of Shenandoah which he got from a sailor over 90 years old, and the sailor's last line went:
away, I'm bound away, across this wide world of mis'ry.
Makes more sense than the Missouri any day.
Hey, I live on the Missouri, and I know that going across it doesn't get you anywhere but Kansas, the beginning of the Great American Desert..."

From: John Minear
Date: 19 Aug 02 - 07:22 PM
"Frank T. Bullen's SONGS OF SEA LABOUR has two short versions of "Shenandoah". He says that he "was before the mast in sailing ships from 1869 to 1880." He goes on to say why he only gives the opening verse and a chorus:
"The stubborn fact is that they had no set words beyond a starting verse or two and the fixed phrases of the chorus, which were very often not words at all. For all Chanties were impromptu as far as the words were concerned. Many a Chantyman was prized in spite of his poor voice because of his improvisations. Poor doggerel they were mostly and often very lewd and filthy, but they gave the knowing and appreciative shipmates, who roared the refrain, much opportunity for laughter."
He says, "Being possessed of a strong and melodious voice and a tenancious memory, Chanty singing early became a passion with me, and this resulted in my being invariably made Chantyman of each new vessel I sailed in, a function I performed until I finally reached the quarter-deck, when of course it ceased."

Bullen calls the first version a "negro Chanty" and he may have learned it while discharging "general cargo in the Demerara River off Georgetown", when he was a "first voyage laddie". He says that he had "never heard them anywhere else. They are negro chanties all right enough, but they were not in common use on board ship." (Bullen is referring to the first four Chanties in his collection, of which this song is the fourth).

[Chantyman] O Shenandoh my bully boy I long to hear you holler;
[Chorus]Way ay ay ay ay
[Chantyman] Shenando I lub ter bring er tot er rum en see ye make a swoller;
[Chorus] Way ay ay ay Shenandoh.

The tune is "brisk" and quite different from the more widely known one.

The other Chanty is called "Rolling-River". It is sung "slow, and with expression". It has the more familiar tune. He says that this "is a fine Chanty of the ordinary windlass or pump type, the main word of which is again Shanandoah, the old Southern name that the negroes would drag in, on account of its melody I suspect."

[Chantyman] Shanandoh, I long ter hear ye;
[Chorus] Away, you rolling river;
[Chantyman] Oh Shanandoh-o I can't get near ye
[Chorus] Ha ha! I'm bound away on the wide Missouri!"

From: GUEST,knowitall
Date: 20 Jun 08 - 06:16 PM
"Shenandoah is PROBABLY an early 19th century shanty song that has evolved lyrically through the past two centuries to fit the needs of the musician performing the piece. The intoduction of the word Missouri into the piece most likely stems from the western migration of early pioneers, most probably from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. It is inconcievable that such a popular old song would not have changed at all from its beginnings until now. It is impossible to portray an accurate history of such a piece without any verifiable written documentation "

GUEST,TJ in San Diego
Date: 12 Feb 10 - 12:14 PM
"Anything that lasts this long and is so pervasive in the musical repertoire must contain very special qualities. "Shenandoah" seems a great example of the "folk process." Its roots may be lost in obscurity; perhaps originally an adaptation using the melody of a familiar nautical song. It has been "gentrified" with strings and choruses added, made into a theatrical and motion picture theme, played on a harmonica in numerous olf "B" westerns of the 1930's and '40's and sung around campfires ad nauseum.

Yet, though many verses and variants have undoubtedly been added, it remains a stalwart part of the folk song book and is still much loved. The melody is the key, at least to me. It speaks lyrically of longing and lonliness and could, even without words, convey those feelings."

The Mudcat thread whose link is given above includes a number of text versions of the lyrics to "Oh Shenandoah". This post is not meant to imply that every person posting to that discussion thread agreed with the belief that "Oh Shenandoah" derived from Black people in either the United States or the Caribbean.

The word "negro" used above is an outdated referent for people of Black African descent in the United States -and/or in this context-in the Caribbean (West Indies). Prior to it being replaced by the term "black [or "Black"] people", for contemporaneous usages of the referent "Negro", the first letter of that referent was and is spelled with a capital letter.

"A shanty (also spelled "chantey," "chanty") is a type of work song that was once commonly sung to accompany labor on board large merchant sailing vessels...

Capstan shanty:[26]
Raising the anchor on a ship involved winding its rope around a capstan, a sort of giant winch, turned by sailors heaving wooden bars while walking around it. Other heavy tasks might also be assisted by using a capstan. Being a continuous action, shanties sung to accompany these tasks might have longer solo verses and, frequently, a "grand chorus," in addition to the call-and-response form. Examples: "Santianna", "Paddy Lay Back," "Rio Grande," "Clear the Track, Let the Bulgine Run," "Shenandoah", and "John Brown's Body." "

This concludes Part I of this series.

Thanks to Paul Robinson for his musical legacy and thanks to the publisher of that sound file.
Thanks also to all those who are quoted in this post.

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.

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