The River is Wide and Deep

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The line, “The river is deep and the river is wide, hallelujah!” is from Michael, Row The Boat Ashore, originally, a Negro spiritual first noted during the American Civil War at Saint Helena Island, one of the Sea Islands of South Carolina, but those words could just as easily refer to another song.

That other song is entitled Across the Wide Missouri (also called Oh Shenandoah or simply Shenandoah) is a song of uncertain origin, dating at least to the early nineteenth century. Shenandoah was first printed as part of William L. Alden’s article “Sailor Songs,” in the July 1882 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.

The song had become popular as a sea chanty with sailors by the 1880s. Sea Songs and Shanties, Collected by W.B. Whall, Master Mariner (First edition in November 1910), states that the song probably originated from American or Canadian “voyageurs,” who were great singers. Thomas Moore drew inspiration from them in his Canadian Boat Song. The author goes on further and states that he heard the song sung over fifty years prior to publishing the book, which places its origin at least a fair bit earlier than 1860. Besides sung at sea, this song figured in old public school collections.

Alfred Mason Williams’ 1895 Studies in Folk-song and Popular Poetry called it a “good specimen of a bowline chant.” One popularly accepted explanation, taken from a 1931 book on sea and river chanteys entitled Capstan Bars, the author, David Bone has the song’s origins in Virginia. Bone maintains that Oh Shenandoah originated as a river shanty song and became popular with crews on sea faring vessels in the 1800s, and is basically a boatman’s song.

George Caleb Bingham immortalized the jolly flatboatmen who plied the Missouri River in the early nineteenth century. These same flatboatmen were known for their chanties, including the lovely Oh Shenandoah. This boatmen’s song found its way down the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers to the American clipper ships, and thus around the world.

The Jolly Flatboatmen (1846) by George Caleb Bingham

The Jolly Flatboatmen (1846)
by George Caleb Bingham


Another feasible explanation is that Oh Shenandoah originated with Scot-Irish settlers and the lyrics referred to their term of confinement as indentured servants. “The seven (long) years” mentioned in most lyrics was the common term of indenture servitude in early America. Over the years, the song has been known by different titles including, Shennydore, The Wide Missouri, Across The Wide Missouri, The Wild Missourye, The World of Misery, Solid Fas, Rolling River and Oh Shenandoah.

The song was featured in the 1951 film Across the Wide Missouri, based on historian Bernard DeVoto’s book, Across the Wide Missouri. The film dramatizes an account of several fur traders and their interaction with the Native Americans. The song was also heard as a part of a medley in the 1962 Cinerama film, How the West Was Won and was prominent in the soundtrack of the 1965 movie, Shenandoah, starring James Stewart.

There are many sets of lyrics. Some lyrics tell the story of a roving trader in love with the daughter of an Indian chief; in this interpretation, the rover tells the chief of his intent to take the girl with him far to the west, across the Missouri River. Other interpretations tell of a pioneer’s nostalgia for the Shenandoah River Valley in Virginia, or of a Confederate soldier in the American Civil War, dreaming of his country home in Virginia. The song is also associated with escaped slaves. They were said to sing the song in gratitude because the river allowed their scent to be lost.

While the origin of the song is unclear, in the 1950s, writing credits were given to Erwin Drake and Jimmy Shirl and it was their version that charted for both the Paul Weston and Hugo Winterhalter recordings.

Here are the lyrics that are associated with versions of the song from the 1950s.

THE LYRICS

ACROSS THE WIDE MISSOURI (1950)
Words and music by Erwin Drake and Jimmy Shirl

Oh, Shenandoah’s my native valley.
Aa-way, you rolling river!
Shenandoah is my native valley.
Ah-way, we’re bound to go, ‘cross th’ wide Missouri!

Oh, Shenandoah, it’s far I wander.
Aa-way, you rolling river!
Shenandoah, it’s far I wander.
Ah-way, we’re bound to go, ‘cross th’ wide Missouri!

Oh, Shenandoah has rushing waters.
Aa-way, you rolling river!
Shenandoah has rushing waters.
Ah-way, we’re bound to go, ‘cross th’ wide Missouri!

Oh, Shenandoah, I love your daughters.
Aa-way, you rolling river!
Shenandoah, I love your daughters.
Ah-way, we’re bound to go, ‘cross th’ wide Missouri!

Oh, Shenandoah, I long to see you.
Aa-way, you rolling river!
Shenandoah, I long to see you.
Ah-way, we’re bound to go, ‘cross th’ wide Missouri!

Oh, Shenandoah, I’m boun’ t’ leave you.
Aa-way, you rolling river!
Shenandoah, I’m boun’ t’ leave you.
Ah-way, we’re bound to go, ‘cross th’ wide Missouri!

Oh, Shenandoah, I’ll never grieve you.
Aa-way, you rolling river!
Shenandoah, I’ll never grieve you.
Ah-way, we’re bound to go, ‘cross th’ wide Missouri!

Another version of the song

My lady love she stands a waitin’ far across the wide Missouri
On the banks I hear her calling to me
A ro a ro la lee across wide Missouri
A ro a ro la lee across wide Missouri.

For seven years I’ve been a roamin’ seven years I led the valley
Now I live just for my true love to see
A ro a ro la lee across wide Missouri
A ro a ro la lee across wide Missouri.

I’m pushin’ off when dawn is breaking goin’ cross the wide Missouri
Where my love she stands a waitin’ for me
A ro a ro la lee across wide Missouri
A ro a ro la lee across wide Missouri. (a ro la lee)…

By the 1950s and 1960s, Across The Wide Missouri or Shenandoah was solidly anchored in the American music culture. Two recordings made the Billboard charts in 1951. Both recordings were released under the title Across The Wide Missouri. The recording by Paul Weston and his Orchestra, with the Norman Luboff Choir reached number nineteen on the Billboard charts and following close behind at number twenty-one was a recording by Hugo Winterhalter’s Orchestra and Chorus, with the vocal refrain by Stuart Foster.

Others groups during the Folk Music Revival of the 1960s, such as The Weavers, The Kingston Trio and the Brothers Four, wrote their popular versions of the song and included the song in their albums and concerts.

More recently, Bruce Springsteen released yet another version of Shenandoah on his 2006 album, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. The listener cannot help but feel the energy of the song as Springsteen brings the song to climax and the music begins its fade to the soft chords at the end.

Whatever the origins of the song may be, the song has the distinct feeling of pure Americana.
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THE RECORDINGS
Click on arrow to hear the song
Paul Weston and His Orchestra (vocals by The Norman Luboff Choir)
Hugo Winterhalter, His Orchestra and Chorus (vocals by Stuart Foster)
OTHER RECORDINGS (NON-CHARTING)
Ray Price
The Kingston Trio
The Weavers
Harry Belafonte
John McDermott
The Robert Shaw Chorale
How the West Was Won (film)
Across the Wide Missouri (film)

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