Michael Row the Boat Ashore

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"Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" (or "Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore" or "Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore" or "Michael Row That Gospel Boat") is a negro spiritual. It was first noted during the American Civil War at St. Helena Island, one of the Sea Islands of South Carolina.[1]

It was sung by former slaves whose owners had abandoned the island before the Union navy arrived to enforce a blockade. Charles Pickard Ware, an abolitionist and Harvard graduate who had come to supervise the plantations on St. Helena Island from 1862 to 1865, wrote the song down in music notation as he heard the freedmen sing it. Ware's cousin, William Francis Allen, reported in 1863 that while he rode in a boat across Station Creek, the former slaves sang the song as they rowed.[2]

The song was first published in Slave Songs of the United States, by Allen, Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison, in 1867.[3]

Lyrics[edit]

The oldest published version of the song runs in a series of unrhymed couplets:[3]

Michael row de boat ashore, Hallelujah!
Michael boat a gospel boat, Hallelujah!
I wonder where my mudder deh (there).
See my mudder on de rock gwine home.
On de rock gwine home in Jesus' name.
Michael boat a music boat.
Gabriel blow de trumpet horn.
O you mind your boastin' talk.
Boastin' talk will sink your soul.
Brudder, lend a helpin' hand.
Sister, help for trim dat boat.
Jordan stream is wide and deep.
Jesus stand on t' oder side.
I wonder if my maussa deh.
My fader gone to unknown land.
O de Lord he plant his garden deh.
He raise de fruit for you to eat.
He dat eat shall neber die.
When de riber overflow.
O poor sinner, how you land?
Riber run and darkness comin'.
Sinner row to save your soul.
or
Michel, row the boat a-shore
Hallelujah!
Then you'll hear the trumpet blow
Hallelujah!
Then you'll hear the trumpet sound,
Hallelujah!
Trumpet sound the world around
Hallelujah!
Trumpet sound the jubilee
Hallelujah!
Trumpet sound for you and me
Hallelujah!

As this song originated in oral tradition, there are many versions of the lyrics. It begins with the refrain, "Michael, row the boat ashore, Hallelujah." The lyrics describe crossing the River Jordan, as in these lines from Pete Seeger's version:

Jordan's river is deep and wide, hallelujah.
Meet my mother on the other side, hallelujah.
Jordan's river is chilly and cold, hallelujah.
Chills the body, but not the soul, hallelujah.[4]

The River Jordan, the place where Jesus was baptised, can be viewed as a metaphor for deliverance and salvation, but also, as the boundary of the Promised Land, death and the transition to Heaven.[5]

Interestingly, on his album Midnight Special, Harry Belafonte sang a rendition that combines the Christian, American slavery and 1960s Civil Rights traditions. The lyrics work their way through different parts of the Biblical narrative before concluding with the following verses: [6]

They nailed Jesus to the Cross, Hallelujah
But his faith was never lost, Hallelujah
So Christian soldiers off to war, Hallelujah
Hold that line in Arkansas, Hallelujah
Michael row the boat ashore, Hallelujah!
Michael row the boat ashore, Hallelujah!
Like Joshua at Jericho, Hallelujah
Alabama's next to go, Hallelujah
So Mississippi kneel and pray, Hallelujah
Some more buses on the way, Hallelujah
Michael row the boat ashore, Hallelujah!
Michael row the boat ashore, Hallelujah!

According to Allen, the song refers to the Archangel Michael.[7] In Christian tradition, Michael is often regarded as a psychopomp, or conductor of the souls of the dead.[8]

Recordings[edit]

The version of "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" that is widely known today was adapted by Boston folksinger and teacher Tony Saletan, who taught it to Pete Seeger in 1954.[9] One of the earliest recordings of the song is by folksinger Bob Gibson, who included it on his 1957 Carnegie Concert album.[10] After The Weavers included an arrangement in The Weavers' Song Book, published in 1960, the American folk quintet The Highwaymen had a #1 hit on both the pop and easy listening charts in the U.S. with it (under the simpler title of "Michael") in 1960; this version also went to #1 in the United Kingdom.[11] Billboard ranked the record as the No. 3 song of 1961.[12] Lonnie Donegan reached #6 in the UK Singles Chart with his cover version in 1961. Harry Belafonte recorded a popular version of it for his 1962 Midnight Special album; Pete Seeger included it in his Children's Concert at Town Hall in 1963. Trini Lopez had a hit with it in 1964. The Israeli-French singer Rika Zaraï also recorded a French version under the title "Michaël" in 1964. Richard Jon Smith's version spent nine weeks at #1 in South Africa.[13] German disco group Dschinghis Khan recorded a version of it in 1981. In 1993, the Cedarmont Kids recorded the song on their album "Sunday School Songs."

The Smothers Brothers did a fairly straightforward version of the song on their album It Must Have Been Something I Said!, before turning it into a comic sing-along on Golden Hits of the Smothers Brothers, Vol. 2 (which is also included on their album Sibling Revelry: The Best of the Smothers Brothers).

Sule Greg Wilson produced a version based upon Allen/Ware/Garrison, as well as Row, Michael Row, by Jane Hunter and Moving Star Hall singers. Featuring Tuscarora vocalist Pura Fé (with Wilson on instruments and background vocals), this version was used for the end credits of The Librarian and the Banjo, Jim Carrier's 2013 film on Dena Epstein, author of the book, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals.

Preceded by
"Wooden Heart (Muss I Denn)" by Joe Dowell
Billboard Hot 100 number-one single (The Highwaymen version)
September 4 – 11, 1961
Succeeded by
"Take Good Care of My Baby" by Bobby Vee
Billboard Easy Listening number-one single (The Highwaymen version)
September 4 – October 2, 1961
Succeeded by
"Mexico" by Bob Moore
Preceded by
"Kon-Tiki" by The Shadows
UK Singles Chart number-one single (The Highwaymen version)
October 12, 1961
Succeeded by
"Walkin' Back to Happiness" by Helen Shapiro

References[edit]

  1. ^ William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison, Slave Songs of the United States, p. xl.
  2. ^ Epstein, Dena (2003). Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music of the Civil War. University of Illinois Press. p. 290. ISBN 0-252-07150-6. 
  3. ^ a b William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison, Slave Songs of the United States, p. 23.
  4. ^ "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore", Pete Seeger Appreciation Page.
  5. ^ Gast, Walter E. "Christian Symbols R: River". Symbols in Christian Art and Architecture. Retrieved 17 July 2013. 
  6. ^ "Harry Belafonte - Michael Row The Boat Ashore Lyrics". LyricsTime.com. Retrieved 17 July 2013. 
  7. ^ William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison, Slave Songs of the United States, p. xvi.
  8. ^ "St. Michael the Archangel", The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913.
  9. ^ "Shaker Village Work Group" Shaker Village Work Group#Role in the American folk music revival
  10. ^ "Merr to Mif", Folk Music Index.
  11. ^ "The Highwaymen: Biography", AllMusic.
  12. ^ Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1961
  13. ^ Samson, John; Chris Kimberly (November 2000). "South African Rock Lists Website - Number of No.1's on the SA Charts". SA Rock Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17 July 2013. 

External links[edit]