Notes

The behind-the-scenes "making of" documentary essay series about preparing songs for performance.

Shenandoah

-- (1800s; American sea chanty, origins uncertain)

From the script for “A Little Travelin' Music”:

Song intro:

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.  Over the decades, however, one particular tune passed from the canoe-going fur traders of the Missouri to flatboatmen and other sailors on the Mississippi.  From there, this boatmen’s song found its way down the Mississippi River to American clipper ships in the Gulf of Mexico, and thus spread to become a popular sea chanty with seafaring sailors around the world.

Recap: The Sounds of Indiana barbershop chorus presented what we call ‘The Travel Show’ in 2018, following the same “standard documentary format” that had been so enthusiastically received for the previous year’s ‘The Indiana Show.’  As before, this concert format presents a mix of chorus and quartet songs set around a particular theme, interspersed with slides of short video clips each paired with a Ken Burns-style voice-over narration to introduce and sometimes close out each song.  The song order for The Travel Show was determined roughly by the geography of each song.  Staying in St. Louis from last week, we now discuss the Missouri River itself.

 

As I may have alluded to in a past week’s article, Shenandoah is the oldest song included in The Travel Show.  Its origins lie somewhere with the adventurous fur-traders who traveled the untamed wilderness of the American Midwest in the late 1700s or early 1800s.  The French-Canadian voyageurs (French for “travelers”) lived a grueling life of toil and travel out in the elements, hauling immense bundles of fur by canoe and on their own backs over portages between rivers.  In their time, however, these men and their strength to endure hardship gained legendary status among more civilized folk, celebrated in song and tale not unlike mid-1900s depictions of cowboys and the Old West.

 

The song Shenandoah grew out of this folklore with no single set tune or lyric; although the melody has now become standardized, several different verses were recorded by the 1860s, and variations continue to exist today.  In any case, the song does not, as is popularly assumed (especially by Virginians), refer to the Shenandoah River, a tributary of the Potomac, or its Valley.  Rather, many versions of its words refer in some way to a trader who fell in love with the daughter of Shenandoah, who was an Iroquois chief of the Oneida people, one of the five main nations of the Iroquois Confederacy.  Further distancing the story from the central Appalachians, the Oneida lived in what is now central New York state, and indeed the Shenandoah River is said to be named after Chief Shenandoah by George Washington in recognition for the aid he provided by sending food to Washington’s starving Patriots at Valley Forge.

 

So, with all that straightened out, here are the lyrics to our version of the piece, as arranged by veteran barbershopper Burt Szabo:

Oh Shenandoah, I long to hear you,

away(, away), you rolling river,

oh Shenandoah, I long to hear you,

away(, away), I’m bound away,

‘cross the wide Missouri.

 

Oh Shenandoah, I love you daughter,

away(, away, away), you rolling river,

oh (oh) Shenandoah, I love your daughter,

away(, away, away), I’m bound to go,

‘cross the wide Missouri.

‘Cross the wide (across the wide) Missouri.

 

Oh Shenandoah, I’m bound to leave you,

away(, away), you rolling river,

oh Shenandoah, I’ll not deceive you,

away(, away), I’m bound away,

‘cross the wide Missouri.

‘Cross the wide (across the wide) Missouri.

 

The story of the song is relayed in simple, repetitive phrases: the trader (i.e. the narrator) goes to the chief to, probably, ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage (“I long to hear you [give me the answer I’m hoping for]” because “I love your daughter”), but this would entail leaving her people.  When the chief refuses, the trader admits that he won’t just take her (“I’ll not deceive you”) and merely takes his leave of both (“I’m bound [to go far] away”), sorrowful and heartbroken.

 

Our presentation of this straightforward story thus depended not so much on a mental music video, as I’ve talked about before, but on giving texture to the verbal and melodic phrases reminiscent of the river itself.  Portraying “The Shape of Water”, if you will.  On top of this, we also place our 1/2/3 technique, referring to the different points of view of storytelling.

 

The first stanza starts out on a calmly flowing river, rolling gently throw the plains.  We’re talking to ourself (1st person), pepping up for popping The Question to the father of the girl we love.  The river is carrying us forward, its wideness a source of adventure and possibility.  The second, with a key change upward, is more rapid.  We’re talking to the chief (2nd person), admitting our feelings.  The words come pouring out of us more quickly, more like actual rapids!  But things get rocky.

 

The third, which shifts back down to the original key, slows down again.  We have to leave, leave her.  As we step into our canoe, we’re shouting out to both of them, and to the world at large (3rd person), our apology.  Our regret!  It’s the river that’s stealing us away, its wideness now a barrier to that hoped-for future.  We turn a bend!… and she disappears from view.  We stand for a moment, panting, hand outstretched.  Then our whole body loosens, our vigor gone, and droops in defeat.

 

It’s a tragic song, really.  Melancholy, I suppose, in a way that may be common to such chanties.  I only know a couple, to be honest, but I still have the overall impression that traders and sailors and cowboys and others like that who makes their living dependent on nature and its vastness and fickleness got to be, in general, a rather lonely lot, prone to singing slow, sorrowful ballads.  (See The Cowboy’s Lament, for another example.)

 

Slow ballads added to the current season make me think of In the Bleak Midwinter, but next week will be much sunnier!  At least here in the NoN series, where we’re about to take off for the golden sunshine of California.  (I wish I could do that literally, too…)

 

In the meantime, I wish you a Merry Christmas!  And if you’re not into that, I still wish you a Merry Winter Spirit of Generosity and Goodwill.  :)

In harmony,

Andy

 

December 23, 2018