Librarian’s Corner: Shenandoah

About Librarian’s Corner:

Leeds Vocal Movement loves to sing music from a wide range of genres, and my aim is to better understand what we are singing. This blog adds some context and analysis to the notes on the page, for the benefit of members and listeners alike!

Shenandoah – traditional (arr. James Erb)

Shenandoah is widely regarded as one of America’s most popular and well-recognised folk songs.[1] Folk songs are known to be fluid in origin and meaning, and this one is no different; however, where its lyrics and melody have shifted, its connotations of heartache for a person or place have remained a staple of its character.

Shenandoah’s roots

The first mention of Shenandoah was said to be in the early 1800s. Some scholars have suggested that the song originally referred to the life of legendary mountaineer and trapper Jim Bridger, while others have traced its roots back to slave workers, akin to African spirituals.[2] However, it is most widely accepted that the song came from the American and Canadian fur traders; the Canadian fur traders, known as voyeurs, were well known for their singing, and songs such as Shenandoah floated down trade routes like the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. The song was eventually picked up by other boatmen and sailors throughout the 19th century, and became a sea shanty sung across the world.[3]

Although many attribute Shenandoah to a place or river, is widely regarded that the song’s title originally referred to the Oneida chief, John Shenandoah. Shenandoah was well celebrated in American history; he co-founded what is now known as Hamilton College in New York, and supported the colonials in the Seven Years War and American Revolutionary War.[4] In addition, he is said to be the namesake of the Shenandoah River and Valley in West Virginia.[5]

A song of longing

As is traditional for folk songs, Shenandoah has many different versions of its lyrics; earlier versions of the song depict the singer as a boatman, who is in love with Shenandoah’s daughter, Sally:

“O, Shenandoah, I love your daughter,

Away you rolling river.

I’ll take her ‘cross yon rolling water.”

Ah-ha, I’m bound away, ‘Cross the wide Missouri.[6]

However, more recent versions of the song, including James Erb’s arrangement, have removed the love story from the lyrics. Without this romantic narrative, the singer seems to direct their focus simply towards ‘Shenandoah’:

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.[7]

As Shenandoah is more commonly known as a place than a person, many have interpreted the lyrics to be yearning for the Shenandoah River or Valley, or used it as a metaphor for a familiar place. David Cheal notes that, while object of yearning open to interpretation, the idea of missing that object is still prevalent:

“Some versions…seem to be more about longing for a place than for a person. It’s a leaving song.”[8]

Erb’s rolling river

There are many choral arrangements of Shenandoah, but James Erb’s arrangement stands out as an homage to the boatmen that sang it, and the rivers that carried it. This is evident from the piece’s first two verses; the first verse is sung with the upper voices, and the second with the lower voices. The distance between these ranges mirrors the distance between the singer and the object of their longing, unable to bridge the gap between them.

Erb’s use of harmony and texture reflects the idea of hearing a song echoing down a river; the piece starts with the melody in unison and doesn’t introduce harmony until the third verse. It then ends with a gradual diminuendo, as each voice part eventually lands on the same sustained note. The slowly growing and thinning harmony imitates the way in which a listener would hear the song, drifting in and out of earshot as it passes them.

The texture in the middle verses seem to portray the movement of the river itself. The top melody floats above the steady harmonies in the lower parts, and later the three higher vocal parts sing the melody and harmony with staggered entrances. Together with the arching motifs and suspensions in the melody, the rippling waves of the “rolling river” can be distinctly heard in the piece, rising and breaking above the strong undercurrent of the sustained notes in the lower voices.

With these aspects in mind, the detail in the structure and dynamics of Erb’s arrangement can be interpreted to reflect the setting in which the song was first popularised: a bittersweet melody floating gently down a river.

Shenandoah today

Shenandoah has been a popular American folksong from the late 19th century, particularly as a favourite in public schools.[9]  The earliest recordings date back to the 1930s by singers such as Paul Robeson, and later sung by folk artists including Bob Dylan, The Corries and Jayne Stone. Shenandoah has also exceeded its folk genre, through numerous performances and recordings by singers such as Bing Crosby, Hayley Westenra and Keith Richards.[10]

The piece is also a choir favourite, with many choral versions of Shenandoah sung on an international scale. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir[11] and Voces8[12] are among the most recent choirs to record the folksong, continuing to immortalise its somewhat haunting melody in a range of different arrangements. However its origins and lyrics are interpreted, Shenandoah is sure to remain a beloved part of American folk music for generations to come.

Written by Rosa Stevens – Choir Manager and Librarian

Reference list

[1] https://www.loc.gov/creativity/hampson/about_shenandoah.html

[2] Cheal, David. 2017. ‘Shenandoah — a song steeped in history and mystery’. Financial Times. Available here.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oh_Shenandoah

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skenandoa

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skenandoa

[6] Ships, Sea Songs and Shanties. Collected by W. B. Whall, Master Mariner. First Edition 1910, Glasgow; Third Edition, 1913. Available here.

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oh_Shenandoah#cite_note-whall-1

[8] Cheal, 2017.

[9]W. B. Whall, 1913.

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oh_Shenandoah

[11] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-GtwNJf3EK4

[12] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8xbY9Iyxpo

Feature image source: https://bit.ly/2l2DXtl 


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