I'm Afloat on the Erie Canal

Words by Eliza Cook; music by Henry Russell, 1841

What is "Clinton's Big Ditch"? Erie Canal. Who was Clinton and what was his motive with the canal? Governor, promote New York trade.

What is the principle behind canals? How are they similar to or different than rivers for transportation? Same: both are cheap and faster than land when available, freezing. Different: river levels fluctuate more, natural beds, more current, natural impediments; canals can be built anywhere, minimal current, controlled water levels, locks to go up and down elevations, can't handle as much traffic.

What does the second verse suggest about the advantages of canals? No fear of waves, navigation, no sails. What does "after four months on shore" suggest about disadvantages of canal travel? Unusable in winter.

What do canal locks do? Dams keep water levels consistent; locks allow boats to change in elevation. What does it mean when a canal has a lot of locks? Steep terrain. Why would boatmen dislike a lot of locks? Lose time going through locks.

Based on the economy of the time, what freight might this canal carry? What products might go from east to west? Manufactures. West to east? Agriculture.

"I'm Afloat on the Erie Canal" performed by the Golden Eagle String Band on Grand Canal Ballads: History of the Erie Canal, Smithsonian Folkways, © 2004. Available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

The Golden Eagle String Band has been performing in the Northeastern US since 1978. The band has recorded for Smithsonian Folkways, toured under a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and received a gold medal from the Smithsonian Institute as Folkways recording artists.

View the lyrics for "I'm Afloat on the Erie Canal."

View the published score.

The Erie Canal, completed in 1825, was nicknamed “Clinton’s Ditch” after New York governor DeWitt Clinton, who presided over its construction. Once completed, other canals were opened to allow further navigation from the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes. These canals spawned many and varied songs, both onshore and off, about the canal. Because the texts were often bawdy, most of these songs were not written down and we must rely on oral tradition and later collections for sources. The workers on the canal sang often as a means of entertainment and to break the monotony.

Henry Russell by B. Hunt
Portrait of Henry Russell by B. Hunt.

Composed by the famous songwriter Henry Russell (1812–1900) to lyrics by Eliza Cook (1818–89), this tune, originally a seafaring song, seems to have been extremely popular and was adapted more than once for different venues. This version was sung on the Erie Canal.

The waltz rhythm (in triple meter) is typical of nineteenth-century popular songs. While this text is undoubtedly quite different from Eliza Cook's original, the liberal use of canallers' terms indicates that it is an authentic adaptation by those who poled the packet ships. This would probably not be an appropriate song to pole to, as with other work songs and sea chanties, but it would serve as entertainment or distraction.

Research the Erie Canal (New York) and the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal. When were each built? What was special about the PA canal? Its Portage Railway. What was the Portage Railway and why was it necessary? Which of the two canals was most successful? Erie. Why? The PA canal with all its locks and the railway were costly to build and took more time to travel. What innovation made canals less useful? Locomotives and railroads.



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