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 Native American chief "Shenandoah" (Oskanondonha) and a canoe-going trader who wants to marry his daughter. 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 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, 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 canoe-going fur-trading voyageurs were great singers, and songs were an important part of their culture. 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. This boatmen's song found its way down the Mississippi River to American clipper ships, and thus around the world.
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. Alfred Mason Williams' 1895 Studies in Folk-song and Popular Poetry called it a "good specimen of a bowline chant".
In a letter to the UK newspaper The Times, a former sailor who had worked aboard clipper ships 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.
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:
Lyrics from prior to 1860, as given in Sea Songs and Shanties, collected by W.B. Whall, Master Mariner (1910) were reported 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:
Lyrics to "Oh Shenandoah" as sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford (1959):
In 2006 "Shenandoah" was proposed as the "interim state song" for Virginia, with updated lyrics. The proposal was contentious because the standard folksong refers to the Missouri River and 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 which lie almost entirely in Virginia. 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.
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.
Selected notable recordings
- Heather Alexander on Arms of the Sea (Sea Fire Productions, 2006)
- Dave Alvin on Public Domain: Songs From the Wild Land (Hightone Records, 2000)
- Bobby Bare on Darker Than Night (Plowboy Records, 2012)
- Harry Belafonte on a 1952 single and on Belafonte at Carnegie Hall (RCA Records, 1959)
- David Berkeley on Some Kind of Cure (2011)
- Glen Campbell on The Artistry of Glen Campbell (Capitol, 1972) and The Essential Glen Campbell Volume One (Capitol CDP-33288, 1994)
- Celtic Woman on Celtic Woman: A New Journey (Manhattan, 2007)
- Chanticleer on Out of This World (1994) and Chanticleer: A Portrait (Teldec, 2003)
- Liam Clancy, on The Wheels of Life (2008)
- Paul Clayton on Whaling and Sailing Songs from the Days of Moby Dick (Allmusic, 1956)
- The Corries on Flower of Scotland (Moidart, 2006)
- Bing Crosby on How the West Was Won (RCA Records, 1959)
- David Daniels on A Quiet Thing (Virgin Classics 724354560025, 2003)
- Connie Dover on Somebody (Taylor Park Music, 1991)
- Bob Dylan on Down in the Groove (1988)
- Fisherman's Friends on Port Isaac's Fisherman's Friends (2010)
- Tennessee Ernie Ford on Shenandoah (Red Door Productions, 1959) and The Folk Album (Capitol, 1971)
- Sergio Franchi on Live at The Coconut Grove (RCA, 1965)
- Jerry Garcia and David Grisman on Not For Kids Only (1993)
- Judy Garland on That Old Feeling - Classic Ballads from the Judy Garland Show (Savoy Jazz label, 2005)
- Nathan Gunn on American Anthem (EMI, 1999)
- Arlo Guthrie on Son of the Wind (Rising Son, 1994)
- R.W. Hampton on Born to be a Cowboy (1994)
- Thomas Hampson on Song of America (Angel Records, 2005)
- Harvard Glee Club on multiple recordings; arrangements by Archibald T. Davison and Jameson Marvin
- Michael Holliday on Hi! (EMI Columbia, 1957)
- The Kelly Family on Honest Workers (1991)
- The King's Singers on The King's Singers: Original Debut Recording (1971)
- The Kingston Trio as "Across the Wide Missouri" on Here We Go Again! (Capitol, 1959)
- Roger McGuinn on Limited Edition (April First Productions, 2004)
- Michigan State University Children's Choir on America the Beautiful: Songs of Our Heritage
- Mormon Tabernacle Choir on multiple recordings including America's Choir, Choral Adagios, Essential Choral Classics.
- Van Morrison with The Chieftains on Long Journey Home (RCA, 1998)
- Leontyne Price on God Bless America (RCA, 1982)
- Jerry Reed on A Good Woman's Love (RCA, 1974)
- Norman Luboff Choir on "Songs of the Sea" (Columbia, 1956)
- Men of the Robert Shaw Chorale on Sea Shanties (RCA Victor, 1961)
- Paul Robeson on multiple recordings including Ballads for Americans, The Essential Paul Robeson, Spirituals, Folksongs & Hymns
- Pete Seeger on American Favorite Ballads, Volume 1 (Smithsonian Folkways, 2002)
- Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band on We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (Columbia, 2006)
- Jo Stafford on American Folk Songs (Corinthian, 1950)
- The Statler Brothers on Big Country Hits (Columbia, 1967)
- Bryn Terfel on A Song in my Heart (UCJ, 2007)
- Hayley Westenra on Celtic Treasure (Decca B000MTDRJA, 2007)
- Tom Waits with Keith Richards on Son of Rogues Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys (Anti-, 2013).
- Full text of SHIPS, SEA SONGS and SHANTIES Collected by W. B. WHALL, Master Mariner (First Edition 1910, Glasgow; Third Edition, 1913).
- "Shenandoah". BalladofAmerica.com. Retrieved August 21, 2016.
- 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.)
- The Times. September 12, 1930. p. 8, column B.
- Capt. R. C. Adams (April 1876). "Sailors' Songs". The New Dominion Monthly. Montreal: John Dougall & Son: 262. Retrieved March 27, 2014.
- Robert Chamblet Adams (1879). On Board the "Rocket". D. Lothrop. p. 317. Retrieved March 27, 2014.
- "About "Shenandoah"". Song of America Project. Library of Congress. Retrieved 2010-03-06.
- "Sailor Songs", Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 65 (386), p. 283, July 1882
- "Harpers New Monthly Magazine from 1882". ebooks.library.cornell.edu. Retrieved September 29, 2012.
- Buck, Dudley. Songs that Never Die. B. F. Johnson, 1892. p. 36.
- 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.
- R. L. ANDREWES. "'Shenandoah'." The Times [London, England] 19 September 1930, p. 6.
- Note: notions = knick-knacks.
- 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.
- Sluss, Michael (March 2, 2006). "Proposed state song doesn't bring down the House". The Roanoke Times. Archived from the original on February 21, 2011.
- Western Writers of America (2010). "The Top 100 Western Songs". American Cowboy. Archived from the original on 10 August 2014.