The song may possibly have originated with Canadian and American voyageurs traveling down the Missouri River. The song has developed several different sets of lyrics; some early lyrics by 1910 seem to tell the story of a trader who fell in love with the daughter of the Oneida Iroquois chief Oskanondonha (1710–1816), called Shenandoah. The song, of whatever origin and in whatever form, appears to have been spread by American riverboatmen. Whatever its origin or form, by the mid 1800s versions of the song had become a sea shanty heard or sung by sailors in various parts of the world.
The song is number 324 in the Roud Folk Song Index.
Until the 19th century only adventurers who sought their fortunes as trappers and traders of beaver fur ventured as far west as the Missouri River. Most of these men were loners who became friendly with, and sometimes married, Native Americans.
The song may have originated with Canadian and American voyageurs traveling down the Missouri River. Some lyrics by 1910 tell the story of a trader who fell in love with the daughter of the Oneida Iroquois pine tree chief, Oskanondonha (1710–1816), called Shenandoah. His name means "deer antlers" (Oh-skan-ohn-doh in Oneida). Also called John Shenandoah or John Skanandoa, the chief lived in the central New York state town of Oneida Castle. He was a co-founder of the Oneida Academy, which became Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, and is buried on the campus grounds. The Oneida composer-performer Joanne Shenandoah is his direct descendant. American sailors heading down the Mississippi River picked up the song and made it a capstan shanty that they sang while hauling in the anchor.
The song had become popular as a sea chanty with seafaring sailors by the mid 1800s. A version of the song called "Shanadore" was mentioned in Capt. Robert Chamblet Adams' article "Sailors' Songs", in the April 1876 issue of The New Dominion Monthly. He also included it in his 1879 book On Board the "Rocket". "Shanadore" was later printed as part of William L. Alden's article "Sailor Songs" in the July 1882 issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine, and in the 1892 book Songs that Never Die.
Ike Skelton, the U.S. congressman for Missouri, noted in 2005 that local artist George Caleb Bingham immortalized the jolly flatboatmen who plied the Missouri River in the early 19th century; these same flatboatmen were known for their shanties, including "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.
Sea Songs and Shanties, Collected by W.B. Whall, Master Mariner (1910, Glasgow) states that the song probably originated from American or Canadian "voyageurs", who were great singers; Irish poet and songwriter Thomas Moore drew inspiration from them in his Canadian Boat Song written at the turn of the 19th century. Whall also states:
- In the early days of America, rivers and canals were the chief trade and passenger routes, and boatmen were an important class. Shenandoah was a celebrated Indian chief in American history, and several towns in the States are named after him. Besides being sung at sea, this song figured in old public school collections.
Set in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, Washington & Lee University chorus singers and bands play this song in homage to their alma mater. The University names the "Washington and Lee Swing" as their fight song, but the student body, who live in the Blue Ridge for at least four years, considers this one of their most nostalgic songs.
The Virginia Military Institute Regimental Band and Glee Club frequently perform this song, as it is widely considered that school's theme song. In this interpretation, Shenandoah refers to the home of the Virginia Military Institute and expresses the longing that a cadet experiences once he is reminded of the valley's beauty by his travels across the "wide Missouri".
The origin of the song is unclear, and there are many sets of lyrics. Some lyrics tell the story of a roving trader in love with the daughter of an Indian chief, Shenandoah (1710–1816); 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 residents of Shenandoah area made many parts, like wheels and seats, for wagons going west. These parts were assembled in Conestoga Township, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and settlers set out in Conestoga wagons down the Ohio River, on the Mississippi and west up the Missouri River. Lyrics were undoubtedly added by rivermen, settlers, and the millions who went west.
In a letter to the UK newspaper The Times, a former sailor who had worked aboard clippers carrying wool between Britain and Australia in the 1880s suggested the song had originated as a black American spiritual which developed into a work song:
- This chantey is obviously of American origin.... "Shenandoah" was more a wool and cotton chantey than a capstan chantey. I have many times heard it sung down the hold on the wool screws by the Sydney waterside workers ... and many were full-blood negroes, who undoubtedly brought these chanteys off the cotton ships.... With regard to the words, these vary according to the taste of the chantey man in the first and third line of each verse, there being no effort called for on these two lines, but the second and fourth lines were always the same, these being the rhythm lines on which the weight was used. When I was in the wool trade in the eighties, in both the Tweed and Cutty Sark this chantey was daily used on the wool screws.
Alfred Mason Williams' 1895 Studies in Folk-song and Popular Poetry called it a "good specimen of a bowline chant". In his 1931 book on sea and river chanteys entitled Capstan Bars, David Bone wrote that "Oh Shenandoah" originated as a river chanty or shanty and then became popular with seagoing crews in the early 19th century.
Modern lyrics are generally as follows:
A Mr. J.E. Laidlaw of San Francisco reported hearing a version sung by a black Barbadian sailor aboard the Glasgow ship Harland in 1894, which went:
The lyrics as given in Sea Songs and Shanties, collected by W.B. Whall, Master Mariner (1910) are as follows:
Lyrics to "Oh Shenandoah" as sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford (1959):
As interim state song of Virginia
For a time in early 2006, it appeared that "Shenandoah" would become the "interim state song" for Virginia. While the authorizing legislation passed the Senate of Virginia, the measure died in committee on the Virginia House of Delegates side. It was a problematic choice because the song never specifically mentions Virginia and, in many versions of the song, the name "Shenandoah" refers to an Indian chief, not the Shenandoah Valley or Shenandoah River. However, an early rendition of the song, as related in 1931 by David Bone in Capstan Bars, includes verses that appear to allude to the Shenandoah River, which is almost wholly located in Virginia:
It is possible that, as the song's popularity spread, flatboatmen of the Missouri might have evolved different lyrics than the bargemen of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal along the Potomac or sailors of the American clipper fleet out of New Orleans.
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- The Times, Friday, Sep 12, 1930; pg. 8; Issue 45616; col B: Quoted in a letter to the editor written by A.A. Brookington of Liverpool. Brookington added his informant Laidlaw had later heard it sung "almost word for word as the sailor of Harland sang it" in 1926 at Monterey Presidio by a captain of the 9th U.S. Cavalry, and that this regiment, though officered by whites, was made up largely of black troopers. The letter-writer therefore speculated the song was originally a negro spiritual.
- (Note: notions = knick-knacks)
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- Shenandoah River
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