Traditional sea chanty, c. 1800s

Let's listen again with our eyes closed and imagine this song in its "natural habitat," back when it was first performed on the western rivers. Who is singing this song? What are they doing? What are they feeling and thinking? Where are they?

Put yourself in the picture. What season is it? What's the weather like? What can you see in the distance? What can you smell? What other sounds can you hear? Where are you headed? What cargo do you carry? How far do you have to travel?

Open your eyes. Write a paragraph describing the experience you imagined.

Let's make the motion of poling a boat, keeping time with the song. What other songs might boatmen sing at this tempo? What role do songs play in a riverboatman's work?

What famous explorers might have sung "Shenandoah"? Lewis and Clark. What were they looking for as they explored the vast West? Northwest water passage. Why? What was so important about water transportation during this era? What technology finally made this song an "antique"? Steamboats. Why is this song still well known and loved?

"Shenandoah" performed by Storm Weather Shanty Choir on Cheer Me Up Lads, Musikaoperatorene, © 2005. Available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

This performance is typical of how this song may have sounded on the river during an impromptu performance perhaps while working. Notable is the unaccompanied solo voice, which is joined by a chorus with harmonizations on the repeated lines.

A more classically inspired rendition of the song by Thomas Hampson can be found at his Song of America project website.

View the music and lyrics for "Shenandoah."

The wide diffusion of this most beloved of American sea chanties makes it impossible to trace to a single historical period or location. Legend has it that this ballad was originally about a romance between an early trader and a Native American princess.

Musically, its slow tempo and soaring melody are somewhat atypical, since most sea chanties featured brisk tempos and shorter phrases more appropriate to accompany faster-paced work. However, "Shenandoah" suited very well the slow poling required on the flatboats that plied inland rivers of America where the song found its eventual home. Control of those rivers was a major point of contention between France, Spain, Britain, and the United States. During this era, water routes remained the fastest and most economical means of travel and commerce.

Fur Traders Descending the Missouri by George Caleb Bingham, 1845

Look at George Caleb Bingham paintings of Missouri River life.

Find out more about the "brags" (similar to raps) that keelboatmen like Davy Crockett and Mike Fink hollered across the water.

Compare this song to:

"Michael Row the Boat Ashore" (Unit 2)



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