September 30, 2019

Oh Shenandoah

Charles DeasThe Trapper and his Family (1845) depicts a voyageur and his Native American wife and children
It has fairly been said that songs are the language of the heart, and speak the sentiments of the soul, in familiar verse. It can also be said that folk songs, for their part, are the soul of folk literature and folk culture, they are the expression in the idiom of the people of their joys and sorrows, their patriotism, their zest for life, and the simple pleasures of a country life. Perhaps even more so, folk songs can often show a part of a country usually unnoticed, ignored or hidden by official representations and day-to-day activity. They are “the true classics of the people, and form the foundation on which a national love of music can be built up,” as the British Board of Education put it in their “Suggestions for the Consideration of Teachers” (1923).

All the above may serve as introduction to the subject of this post, namely a traditional American folk song known as “Oh Shenandoah,” also called simply “Shenandoah” or “Across the Wide Missouri.” Like many Europeans of my generation, I first came across this song thanks to the soundtrack of the 1965 Civil War movie, Shenandoah, starring Jimmy Stewart, one of the greatest Hollywood stars of all time. I saw the movie back in the 80s and enjoyed it a lot, including, but not especially, the soundtrack. Later on, I heard some good renditions of the song—including those of Tom Waits & Keith Richards, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and Emmylou Harris. But what made me truly fall in love with the song was Bruce Springsteen’s stunning version of “Shenandoah,” to whose rolling cadences he did full justice on his 2006 Seeger Sessions album.



What this song is all about? As the Library of Congress’s Song of America Project puts it, the origins of “Shenandoah” are not so easily deciphered:

Like many folksongs, it is impossible to determine exactly when the song was composed, yet it probably did not originate later than the Civil War. In any case, by the nineteenth century, “Shenandoah” had achieved widespread popularity, both on land and at sea.

American folklorist Alan Lomax suggested that “Shenandoah” was a sea-shanty and that the “composers” quite possibly were French-Canadian voyageurs. Sea shanties were work songs used by sailors to coordinate the efforts of completing chores such as raising the ship’s anchor or hauling ropes. The formal structure of a shanty is simple: it consists of a solo lead that alternates with a boisterous chorus. With the sweeping melodic line of its familiar refrain, “Shenandoah” is the very nature of a sea shanty; indeed, the song’s first appearance in print was in an article by William L. Alden, titled “Sailor Songs,” that was published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (1882).

As unclear as is the song’s origin, so is the definitive interpretation of its text. Some believe that the song refers to the river of the same name. Others suggest that it is of Native American origin, for it tells the tale of Sally, the daughter of the Indian Chief Shenandoah, who is courted for seven years by a white Missouri river trader. Regardless of these textual discrepancies, “Shenandoah” remains an American classic.

As an example of the difficulties in interpretation of the text, in one version of the song’s lyrics—there are several—we read “Oh, Shenandoah, I long to hear you,” which could refer to the sound of a running river, but could also mean a woman’s voice; another version says, “Oh Shenandoah, I hear you calling.” Maybe, as a music blogger fairly noted, the love affair between the fur trader and the Indian maiden gradually morphed into a longing for a river and its valley…

As David Cheal insightfully noted in an October 9, 2017, Financial Times article, the song is

a sea shanty, a logging song, a fur traders’ ballad. It’s pronounced “Shanandore”. Actually, that should be “Shenan-doh-ah”. It’s about a fur trapper who falls in love with a Native American chief’s daughter. It’s about the wide Missouri river. In fact, it’s called “Across the Wide Missouri”. Actually, it’s not about the Missouri at all — it’s about “This world of misery”. “Shenandoah” is all of these things, and none of them. It’s an enigma, inside a mystery, wrapped in a gorgeous melody. Generations of schoolchildren in the US and elsewhere have grown up singing it, and some of the world’s great popular singers have been drawn to it.
Most of all, however, as John and Alan Lomax pointed out in their book Best Loved American Folk Songs, what makes the beauty and appeal of the song is the fact that

[t]he melody has the roll and surge and freedom of a tall ship sweeping along before a trade wind. The sonorous succession of long vowels and soft and liquid consonants blend perfectly with the romantic air. The lines are a call from the homeland to the sailor wandering far out across the seas, a call not from a sweetheart, a house, or even a town, but from the land itself, its rivers and its familiar and loved hills.

As for the lyrics, I’d say that it’s not so much about their literal meaning—or lack of it—as it is about the nostalgia and the sense of loss they convey to us. Maybe such a poignant feeling is the key to penetrating the mystery of this song. After all, to compose a song or a symphony, as well as to write a novel or a poem is to inhabit a dream, a dream that sometimes takes place in its very own dreamscape, even more so when it comes to traditional folk songs, myths, legends, and fairy tales. Actually, dreams matter, myths matter. We in modern Western societies think that “myth” and “legend” are practically synonyms for “untrue.” But there is a more profound sense in which myths, legends, and even dreams can be very true. Quite often, myths and legends, along with folk tales and traditional folk songs, express not only our most intimate feelings and longings but also our innermost sense of reality, the sense of nostalgia for what was and what could have been, if not our hope that someday, somehow, we will reach our Promised Land. Humans need myths because they need dreams. That’s also why “Oh Shenandoah” matters.

Oh Shenandoah,
I long to see you,
Away you rolling river.
Oh Shenandoah,
I long to see you,
Away, I'm bound away
'Cross the wide Missouri.
Oh Shenandoah,
I love your daughter,
Away, you rolling river.
For her I'd cross
Your roaming waters,
Away, I'm bound away
'Cross the wide Missouri.
'Tis seven years
since last I've seen you,
Away, you rolling river.
'Tis seven years
since last I've seen you,
Away, we're bound away
'Cross the wide Missouri.
Oh Shenandoah,
I long to hear you,
Away, you rolling river.
Oh Shenandoah,
I long to hear you,
Away, we're bound away
'Cross the wide Missouri.
Oh Shenandoah,
I long to hear you,
Far away, you rolling river.
Oh Shenandoah,
Just to be near you,
Far away, far away.
'Cross the wide Missouri.