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Shenandoah: An American Ballad Posted by on Sep 19, 2019 in American history, Music and Song

I was recently listening to a favorite radio station which played a recording of the classic American folk song, Shenandoah. The station host confessed that he didn’t know the exact story behind the song, but he believed that it was from the time of fur traders in the American west in the 18th century. Well, I’ve known the song my whole life and I confess that I had no idea what its history is either. And so, my friends, with curiosity ablaze, I decided to find out the story of Shenandoah.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay, CCO

We have no idea who wrote the song, and, in fact, it probably evolved over a long period of time. There are several versions of the lyrics which, while quite similar, indicate that there is more than one writer. It has also had a fascinating history, transforming itself from a love ballad to a sea shanty to a classical song.

The original song, as far as anyone can tell, came from French Canadian fur trappers, called voyageurs, who traded with Native Americans along the Missouri River in the 1700s. The Missouri was as far west as any white man had traveled until the beginning of the 19th century. Fur traders were solitary men who paddled canoes and flat-bottomed boats acquiring pelts from the natives in exchange for money, tools, and weapons. Those fur pelts would then become fur coats and hats for those who could afford them.

The original song probably refers to John Skenandoa, the chief of the native Oneida Iroquois tribe. Skenandoa supported the British in the so-called French and Indian War. This war pitted British expansion settlers against Canadian settlers who claimed the territory for their own. In one early version of the song, a fur trapper and trader is in love with the chief’s daughter, but the chief refuses to allow the marriage.

Missouri, she’s a mighty river.

Away you rolling river.

The redskins’ camp, lies on its borders.

Ah-ha, I’m bound away, ‘Cross the wide Missouri.

 

The white man loved the Indian maiden,

Away you rolling river.

With notions his canoe was laden.

Ah-ha, I’m bound away, ‘Cross the wide Missouri.

 

“O, Shenandoah, I love your daughter,

Away you rolling river.

I’ll take her ‘cross yon rolling water.”

Ah-ha, I’m bound away, ‘Cross the wide Missouri.

 

The chief disdained the trader’s dollars:

Away you rolling river.

“My daughter never you shall follow.”

Ah-ha, I’m bound away, ‘Cross the wide Missouri.

 

Later, the song became a popular sea shanty among sailors heading down the Missouri and Mississippi. The tune matched the timing of rope pulling as they hauled sails and anchors. Because of this, sailors on clipper ships around the world adopted the song. The refrain, “Away, away, you rolling river” could be heard on sailing ships for centuries.

It was also sung by the US Cavalry soldiers on the old west plains following the American Civil War. Many of these soldiers left loved ones behind to seek a place for themselves west of the Mississippi. They also violently fought Native American tribes. Thus, a song about lost loves combined with bitterness against an American Indian chief seems a perfect fit for these men.

For seven long years, I courted Nancy

Hi! Ho! The rolling river!

For seven long years I courted Nancy

Away, away! I’m bound away for the wild Missouri! 

She would not have me for a lover

Hi! Ho! The rolling river!

She would not have me for a lover

Away, away! I’m bound away for the wild Missouri!

It was also adopted by African American slaves as a song to sing in the cotton fields. Here, the location the wide (or wild) Missouri was replaced by This land of mis’ry!

And so it came to pass that the great African American singer Paul Robson became the first popular singer to record a version of the song in the 1930s. For Robson, fully aware of the song’s history, it turned into an American song about leaving and longing. The motivation for this is never explained. It could easily be the story of anyone taken from their homeland – such as an African slave.

Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away, you rolling river
Oh, Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away, I’m bound to go
‘Cross the wide Missouri

Shenandoah, I took a notion
Away, you rolling river
To sail across the stormy ocean
Away, I’m bound to go
‘Cross the wide Missouri

‘Tis seven long years since last I see thee
Away, you rolling river
‘Tis seven long years since last I see thee
Away, I’m bound to go
‘Cross the wide Missouri

Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away, you rolling river
Oh, Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away, I’m bound to go
‘Cross the wide Missouri

But the song wasn’t done evolving! In addition to now being a famous folk tune, Shenandoah was used as a tune in Western movies, most notably in a 1965 film of the same name starring James Stewart. And so, it may be known by many as a country-western song! And the song is popular among choirs, sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and even the Choir of King’s College in Cambridge, England.

Honestly, you could pick from hundreds of recordings of Shenandoah to listen to. They all seem both familiar and unique. Given its history, that is no surprise. But, I have chosen a record which seems to echo its long history in one amazing version, sung by Tom Waits and Keith Richards.

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