Oh Shenandoah

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Charles Deas' The Trapper and his Family (1845) depicts a voyageur and his Native American wife and children

"Oh Shenandoah" (also called simply "Shenandoah" or "Across the Wide Missouri") is a traditional American folk song of uncertain origin, dating to the early 19th century.

The song appears to have originated with Canadian and American voyageurs or fur traders traveling down the Missouri River in canoes, and has developed several different sets of lyrics. Some lyrics refer to the Oneida chief Shenandoah and a canoe-going trader who wants to marry his daughter. By the mid-19th century 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 Canadian and American "voyageurs" in the fur trade era were loners who became friendly with, and sometimes married, Native Americans. Some lyrics of this song heard by and before 1860 tell the story of a trader who fell in love with the daughter of the Oneida Iroquois pine tree chief Shenandoah (1710–1816), who 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.

["Shenandoah"] probably came from the American or Canadian voyageurs, who were great singers .... 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.

Sea Songs and Shanties, Collected by W.B. Whall, Master Mariner (1910, Glasgow)[1]

The canoe-going fur-trading voyageurs were great singers, and songs were an important part of their culture.[1] Also in the early 19th century, flatboatmen who plied the Missouri River were known for their shanties, including "Oh Shenandoah". Sailors heading down the Mississippi River picked up the song and made it a capstan shanty that they sang while hauling in the anchor.[2] This boatmen's song found its way down the Mississippi River to American clipper ships, and thus around the world.[3]

The song had become popular as a sea shanty with seafaring sailors by the mid 1800s.[4] 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.[5] He also included it in his 1879 book On Board the "Rocket".[6] "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,[7][8][9] and in the 1892 book Songs that Never Die.[10] Alfred Mason Williams' 1895 Studies in Folk-song and Popular Poetry called it a "good specimen of a bowline chant".[11]

In a 1930 letter to the UK newspaper The Times, a former sailor who had worked aboard clipper ships that carried wool between Great Britain and Australia in the 1880s said that he believed the song had originated as a black American spiritual which developed into a work song.[12]


Since "Shenandoah" was a riverman's and then sailor's song and went through numerous changes and versions over the years and centuries, there are no set lyrics. Modern lyrics are usually some variation of the following:

Earlier versions[edit]

Lyrics from prior to 1860, as given in Sea Songs and Shanties, collected by W.B. Whall, Master Mariner (1910) were reported as follows:[1]

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:

Lyrics to "Oh Shenandoah" as sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford (1959):

Modern usage[edit]

The song is popular in local organizations such as Shenandoah University, Southern Virginia University, Washington and Lee University, and the Virginia Military Institute.

In 2006 "Shenandoah" was proposed as the "interim state song" for Virginia, with updated lyrics.[15] The proposal was contentious because the standard folksong refers to the Missouri River, and in most versions of the song the name "Shenandoah" refers to an Indian chief, not the Shenandoah Valley or Shenandoah River which lie almost entirely in Virginia.[15][16] In 2015, "Our Great Virginia", which uses the melody of "Shenandoah" was designated by the Virginia Legislature as the official traditional state song of Virginia.

It features in the soundtrack of the 1965 movie, Shenandoah, starring Jimmy Stewart. It is also heard repeatedly in 1947's Mourning Becomes Electra, and as part of a medley in the 1962 film How the West Was Won.

Members of the Western Writers of America chose it as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time.[17]

Various arrangements by Percy Grainger have been recorded by John Shirley-Quirk and other classically trained singers. "A song of the waters: variations on the folksong Shenandoah" is a classical composition by James Cohn. At least one version was arranged by Leslie Woodgate.[18]

Selected notable recordings[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Ships, Sea Songs and Shanties. Collected by W. B. Whall, Master Mariner. First Edition 1910, Glasgow; Third Edition, 1913.
  2. ^ "Shenandoah". BalladofAmerica.com. Retrieved August 21, 2016.
  3. ^ In a 1931 book on sea and river shanties, David Bone wrote that the song originated as a river chanty or shanty, then became popular with seagoing crews in the early 19th century. (David W. Bone (1931). Capstan Bars. Edinburgh: The Porpoise Press. OCLC 896299.)
  4. ^ The Times. September 12, 1930. p. 8, column B.
  5. ^ Capt. R. C. Adams (April 1876). "Sailors' Songs". The New Dominion Monthly. Montreal: John Dougall & Son: 262. Retrieved March 27, 2014.
  6. ^ Robert Chamblet Adams (1879). On Board the "Rocket". D. Lothrop. p. 317. Retrieved March 27, 2014.
  7. ^ "About "Shenandoah"". Song of America Project. Library of Congress. Retrieved 2010-03-06.
  8. ^ "Sailor Songs", Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 65 (386), p. 283, July 1882
  9. ^ "Harpers New Monthly Magazine from 1882". ebooks.library.cornell.edu. Retrieved September 29, 2012.
  10. ^ Buck, Dudley. Songs that Never Die. B. F. Johnson, 1892. p. 36.
  11. ^ Alfred Mason Williams (1895). Studies in Folk-song and Popular Poetry. London: Elliot Stock. pp. 5–7., as reprinted in Alfred Mason Williams (2005). Studies in Folk-song and Popular Poetry. BiblioBazaar. ISBN 978-0-559-78728-7.
  12. ^ R. L. ANDREWES. "'Shenandoah'." The Times [London, England] 19 September 1930, p. 6. "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."
  13. ^ Note: notions = knick-knacks.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ a b Sluss, Michael (March 2, 2006). "Proposed state song doesn't bring down the House". The Roanoke Times. Archived from the original on September 11, 2012.
  16. ^ "Virginia Searches For A New State Song". NPR.org. Retrieved 2016-10-23.
  17. ^ Western Writers of America (2010). "The Top 100 Western Songs". American Cowboy. Archived from the original on 10 August 2014.
  18. ^ British Library (1 January 1987). The Catalogue of Printed Music in the British Library to 1980. Saur. ISBN 978-0-86291-359-5.
  19. ^ https://www.discogs.com/composition/6902dee3-4c19-4bd3-9188-8cd4c1d0f3bc-Shenandoah. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  20. ^ www.amazon.com https://www.amazon.com/Recital-2-Sherrill-Milnes/dp/B000003LLK. Retrieved 2018-12-08. Missing or empty |title= (help)

External links[edit]