The Glendy Burk

Stephen Foster, 1860

Who is the singer of this song? A black man—this is a minstrel song, written in dialect. Do you think he was free or enslaved? He was free to choose his work and travel where he wanted. Where is he going? New Orleans, Louisiana. How did he afford his ticket? Worked his way down. What does the third verse suggest about race relations in the North? Even free black workers were mistreated.

What river system does this song refer to? Mississippi. What is your clue? New Orleans is at the mouth of the Mississippi. What other major rivers comprise the Mississippi system? Ohio; Missouri. What states touch those rivers and their tributaries? How was river travel important to those states?

Why were riverboat songs so popular in the early 1800s? They were new, moved freight and people cheaper and faster than on land. What songs replaced riverboat songs in the late 1800s? Train songs. Why? Trains became the dominant form of transportation, because they were faster and tracks could go anywhere.

The Glendy Burke was a real boat that worked out of Pittsburgh, Stephen Foster's hometown. Estimate the number of miles the Glendy Burke traveled from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. How long did the trip take?

What about riverboats appealed to Stephen Foster? See verse two: the riverboatmen, machinery. What American author also had a fascination with riverboats? Mark Twain. What stories of his have you read? What did traveling the Mississippi represent to the characters in his stories?

How is the mood of this river song similar and different from later songs like "Old Man River" and "Rolling on the River"?

"The Glendy Burk" performed by the 2nd South Carolina String Band on In High Cotton: Favorite Camp Songs of the Civil War, 2nd South Carolina String Band, © 2002. Available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

The 2nd South Carolina String Band recreates an actual string band of the Civil War era. They sing a wide variety of traditional American songs as they would have been performed, capturing the general merriment and excitement of a high-spirited performance.

Visit them online here.

View the lyrics for "The Glendy Burk."

View the published score.

The Glendy Burke (with an “e”) was a steamboat that was built in Jefferson, Indiana, in 1851 and named for New Orleans banker, merchant, and legislator Glenn D. Burke, with whom Morrison Foster (Stephen’s brother) did business in 1843. When this song was written, steamboats were still the predominant means of transportation inland, though railroads were rapidly gaining ground as the transportation of choice. In 1855 the Glendy Burke, a 425-ton side-wheel packet, was wrecked near Cairo. The debris, which remained for several years, became what one writer described as a “navigational hazard,” a stark contrast to the “mighty fast boat” in the song.

The song is written in offensive dialect, which was a convention that indicated a character was African American. Such dialect, typical of blackface minstrel shows and literature of the day, is offensive because it portrays Blacks as uneducated and simple-minded.

Since the character in the song is seemingly free to travel and is originally from the South (Louisiana), we might presume that he was at one point enslaved and is now free. Another aspect of the song that was common at the time is the character’s desire to return to the South and work with slaves—perhaps as a slave himself—in the sugarcanes and cotton fields. In all, the offensive dialect and unrealistic persona—who would want to return to enslavement?—reveal that this song, like almost all minstrel songs from before the Civil War, was a product of the white imagination, not an authentic portrayal of Black life.

19th century steamboat

Steamboat "The Belle of Alton."

Other songs about water travel in this unit:


"I'm Afloat on the Erie Canal."

Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain



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