Michael Row the Boat Ashore

Traditional African American rowing song, 1700s

What strikes you most about "Michael Row the Boat Ashore"?

What musical phrase is especially memorable? How often does it recur?

What do you think is the purpose of the song: to entertain, convince or persuade, express an emotion, encourage, tell a story, commemorate? Could it have more than one purpose?

What does the song's tempo suggest about its purpose? What movement can you picture going along with this song (marching, dancing, working, playing a game, etc.)?

Who do you think wrote "Michael Row the Boat Ashore"? Where and how? How was the song performed?

What are some of the metaphors in this song? What does the Jordan River stand for?

What is the message of "Michael Row the Boat Ashore"? What emotions does it express?

How does the music reinforce or help to tell the message of "Michael Row"? If you couldn't understand the words, what would you assume from the music about its mood and message?

What do the lyrics reveal about any "hidden message" or point of view of the singers/writers?


"Michael Row the Boat Ashore" performed by Montgomery Gospel Trio, Nashville Quartet, and Guy Carawan on We Shall Overcome: Songs of the Freedom Riders and Sit-ins, Folkways [05591], © 1961. Available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

This song shows the extraordinary ability of African American folk musicians to combine images and symbols from traditional hymns and scripture with images of their everyday lives.

View the music and lyrics for "Michael Row the Boat Ashore."

A network of rivers gave southern planters natural highways to deliver crops to the coast where larger ships relayed them to coastal cities in England or America.

After daily river "commutes" on boats rowed by Black boatmen, Fanny Kemble, an English actress and writer, described the traditional African American call and response singing pattern: "When the rowing is not too hard, they accompany the stroke of their oars with the sound of their voices … The way in which the chorus strikes in with the burden [refrain], between each phrase of the melody chanted by a single voice, is very curious and effective."

"Michael Row the Boat Ashore" is deliberately slow to keep pace with the oars when the load was heavy or they were rowing against the tide. Charles Pickard Ware in Slave Songs of the United States notes that "two measures are to be sung to each stroke, the first measure being accented by the beginning of the stroke, the second by the rattle of the oars in the rowlocks."

Shipping Tobacco, Virginia (USA), ca. 1755. [Cartouche from A Map of the Most Inhabited Part of Virginia…, by Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson (ca. 1755)]

Fry, Joshua, Approximately, Peter Jefferson, and Thomas Jefferys. A portion of A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina. [London, Thos. Jefferys, 1755] Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/74693166/>.

Compare this song to:

"Shenandoah" (Unit 3)

"Mule Skinner Blues" (Unit 5)

"En roulant ma boule" (Unit 1)

Make up new verses to "Michael Row the Boat Ashore" that use the river and rowing metaphors to express your emotions or beliefs. For a challenge, try improvising new verses as you sing the song—that's how the song was created!

Creative Commons License
Voices Across Time is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at voices.pitt.edu/Permissions.html.