“Oh Shenandoah”

I was going to do an anti-Trump post about how Republicans are trying to sell 3.3 million acres of public land, but screw it: let’s have some music. There’s plenty of malfeasance to come, and I don’t want to devote too many posts to what you can read in the newspapers.

“Oh Shenandoah”, an old American folk song, is said to have come from the fur traders on the Missouri River; as Wikipedia notes:

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.

I find it ineffably beautiful in almost all versions, but here are three great ones. The oldest version is first, by the wonderful Paul Robeson, one of the greatest bass singers I’ve ever heard, and of course a political activist and polymath. He recorded “Oh Shenandoah” several times.

This version, by Van Morrison accompanied by The Chieftains, is very different but sends a chill up my spine. This version was recorded in 1998, and I have a hard time saying it’s not my favorite.

Let’s not forget Tennessee Ernie Ford, often seen as a cornpone singer, but that’s unfair. Here’s his version from 1959:

And those of a certain age will remember the Kingston Trio’s version. For a countrified version, listen to Glenn Campbell’s take.

56 Comments

  1. Cate Plys
    Posted February 1, 2017 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Wow Jerry, good call. A great way to close out the day. I am appallingly unschooled in American folk songs, knowing only the bare basics (Woody Guthrie, thanks to Bob Dylan)and have never heard many classic songs like this one. Choosing between Paul Robeson and Van Morrison is indeed impossible.

  2. Merilee
    Posted February 1, 2017 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Twenty odd years ago I attended part of a choral festival in Toronto and heard a breathtaking rendition of Shenandoah by a Bulgarian(!!) choir in a downtown church.

  3. Carol D
    Posted February 1, 2017 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    Sang this in grade school chorus. Thanks for the “mammories”.

  4. Mary L
    Posted February 1, 2017 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    All good, but I have a very soft spot for Van Morrison.

    • Merilee
      Posted February 1, 2017 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

      I agree with Mary on liking Van the Man’s version best. Also great to see the shots of the Shenandoah Valley, where I’ve hiked a couple of times.

  5. Kiwi Dave
    Posted February 1, 2017 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    It’s a wonderful song. There are many enjoyable versions of it, but far and away the best was a school choir in rehearsal 15 – 20 years ago. I’m very definitely not a fan of choral music, but the hair stood up on the back of my neck, the only time music has ever produced that reaction.

  6. Randall Schenck
    Posted February 1, 2017 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    Hey, nothing wrong with Ernie Ford and all those pea pickers out there. Had his own show on TV long ago and probably most known for the song sixteen tons.

    Where I lived in Iowa was about 20 miles from Shenandoah, Iowa. Probably nothing to do with the song but not far from the Missouri river, 30 miles or so. Shenandoah also famous as the starting place for one singing duo – The Everly Brothers. Just a bit of local history.

    • nwalsh
      Posted February 1, 2017 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

      Most beautiful, thank you Jerry. I just did a quick itunes search and I quite like a version by the Dale Warland singers. Kingston tri not bad either.

  7. Ian Clark
    Posted February 1, 2017 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    This is my favourite version (sorry for the YouTube link!):
    https://www.youtube.com/shared?ci=NPtg3GeyyXs

    • Kiwi Dave
      Posted February 1, 2017 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for that – it’s terrific.

      • Ian Clark
        Posted February 2, 2017 at 12:03 am | Permalink

        It’s very powerful. I should have said favourite arrangement (by James Erb), rather than “version”, since other choirs do it very well too, such as this one:

        • Steve Covey
          Posted February 3, 2017 at 11:02 am | Permalink

          Gifted vocalists like the Augustana Choir singing in an acousticly perfet locale like the one shown could sing the phonebook and still bring shivers to the audience! bravo!

  8. jaxkayaker
    Posted February 1, 2017 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    Fantastic. How was I ignorant of this song? I’m afraid I have to disagree with you, Jerry. I like Van Morrison, but his version is the least of these. Robeson’s and Ford’s are too close to call.

  9. Bob Bottemiller
    Posted February 1, 2017 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    Here’s a beautiful, slow version by guitarist Bill Frisell:

    • Helen Hollis
      Posted February 2, 2017 at 12:49 am | Permalink

      Love this!

  10. Posted February 1, 2017 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    Tennessee Ernie Ford’s voice is smooth as silk and his version brings back special memories as it was one of my dad’s favorites. As far as The Kingston Trio version goes, that’s special also as the very first vinly LP I owned as a 12-year old in 1962 was The Best of The Kingston Trio and I was a huge fan through all their iterations. Thanks, Jerry, for offering these selections to us.

  11. Posted February 1, 2017 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the beautiful music, PCCE. It was much needed. Lotsa people thinking about crossing rivers and oceans right now.

  12. Jeannine Lanigan aka pghwelshgirl
    Posted February 1, 2017 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    Such an achingly beautiful song, in all those performances.

    I must have sung it in high school or college, although I can’t recall the arrangement.

    My most memorable rendition, though, was when figure skater Brian Boitano used this song for one of his finest performances. Just exquisite.

    Not including a link, but easily found on YouTube, etc.

  13. Posted February 1, 2017 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always loved this song, but I’ve never understood the part “O Shenandoah, I love your daughter.” Who the heck is the daughter of a river?

    • merilee
      Posted February 1, 2017 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

      I’ve wondered that, too, and how does the Missouri enter into it?

      • Posted February 1, 2017 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

        I’d read the Wikipedia entry; I think Shenandoah refers to an Indian chief (haven’t looked it up for a long time).

        • Posted February 2, 2017 at 11:54 am | Permalink

          Interestingly in light of your trip,

          “Shenandoah River (New Zealand), a river in the South Island”

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted February 3, 2017 at 1:33 am | Permalink

            It is, though, a very minor river, a branch of the Maruia River, about 4 miles long. It runs alongside SH(State Highway) 65 aka Shenandoah Highway, between Murchison and Springs Junction, the high point in the road is Shenandoah Saddle.

            The following link leads to it:
            http://www.topomap.co.nz/NZTopoMap/nz36038/Shenandoah-River

            And – thanks to this – I’ve just discovered a new resource:
            http://www.topomap.co.nz/NZTopoMap
            leads to a zoomable, searchable detailed map of New Zealand based on the governmant LINZ 1:50,000 maps.

            cr

    • Jakc
      Posted February 3, 2017 at 1:01 am | Permalink

      Shenandoah is the name of a chief. The French fur trader/voyager has been in love with his daughter but is now leaving again (perhaps not to return). The song takes place somewhere on the Missouri River (for example, Ft Pierre/Pierre South Dakota is an old fur trading fort built by Pierre Chouteau were traders and Indians would meet) Despite the name, it’s not about the Virginia river and probably not really about the state of Missouri

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted February 3, 2017 at 3:47 am | Permalink

        Doubtless much of the confusion is due to the large number of different variations that have arisen over the years, and also the fact that the ‘authors’ of the versions may have had no very clear idea of who/what Shenandoah was.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oh_Shenandoah

        cr

      • Posted February 3, 2017 at 10:58 am | Permalink

        That clears up my confusion. Thanks.

  14. Taskin
    Posted February 1, 2017 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    Interesting to compare styles and interpretations, thanks! Robeson was a class act, I’ve loved his voice since I discovered an album of his amongst my parents’ records when I was a kid. The Van Morrison version is new to me and I like it quite a lot. 🙂

  15. Billy Bl.
    Posted February 1, 2017 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    Who sang the version in the movie?

  16. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 1, 2017 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    Three great versions of a great tune. Gotta agree with you, though, Van is The Man on this one.

    I’ve been diggin’ Tennessee Ernie ever since the first time I heard “Sixteen Tons” as a kid. (I also dig the funky cover of that tune that Jeff Beck did with ZZ Top! Both versions are on the list of songs to play at my wake.)

    As for Paul Robeson — well, every time I hear that man sing, I wanna get up and march to a “Henry Wallace for President” rally, and then to tell HUAC to go fuck itself.

    • Merilee
      Posted February 2, 2017 at 8:51 am | Permalink

      Thanks for the Beck/ZZ version, Ken. Who woulda thunk it??

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 2, 2017 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

      Call me a weird kid, but when I got my first stereo the first LP’s I bought were Tennessee Ernie Ford’s, including one or two gospel albums (hey, the music was catchy, stirring, whatever). Believe he had a TV show then?

      Coincidentally I was clicking around the TEF clips on YouTube a few months ago and ran into one song I hadn’t yet heard … 😉

      A few years later the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan & my album buying took a sharp turn.

      Can still sing every verse of 16 Tons, though.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted February 3, 2017 at 8:18 am | Permalink

        You’re a weird kid, DG. 🙂

        Me, too. I also still know all the words to “16 Tons”; It was the song I picked for glee club.

        My first records were by Chubby Checker and by The Four Seasons. And you’re right; the lads from Liverpool changed everything.

  17. George
    Posted February 1, 2017 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    Back in 1993, Jerry Garcia and David Grisman put out an album titled “Not For Kids Only”. They took bluegrass songs and played them for children. One of the songs is “A Shenandoah Lullaby”, a combination of “Oh Shenandoah” and Brahm’s Lullaby. Pretty remarkable.

  18. John Nunes
    Posted February 1, 2017 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    Jo Stafford:

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted February 2, 2017 at 3:04 am | Permalink

      That is indeed a fine version.

      cr

  19. Jakc
    Posted February 1, 2017 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    Richard Thompson included this song in his greatest songs of the last 1,000 years tour/cd (and does a fine version himself). Thanks for these versions

  20. Posted February 1, 2017 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

    Greatest version of this I’ve ever heard was by Richard Thompson at an all request show in Saratoga Ca. Unrehearsed, it can out with a heartbreaking soulfulness. I can barely listen to another version, it was so perfect.

    • David W.
      Posted February 2, 2017 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      Here’s RT performing it in his “1000 Years of Popular Music” show, and it’s also amazing.

  21. Posted February 2, 2017 at 12:50 am | Permalink

    As soon as I saw “three versions”, I was ready to recommmend Van Morrison’s, but you had it. Great version. Matter of fact, it’s about all I like by Morrison. Thanks for all these versions of this gorgeous song.

  22. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted February 2, 2017 at 2:31 am | Permalink

    Yes, one of the most beautiful tunes I know.

    Here’s a lovely version by Sissel Kyrkjebo
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5grgB-dV2o

    And for something slightly different, an instrumental version on the violin by Mairead Nesbitt:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l8kAXVKqnQg

    P.S. I’ve added van Morrison’s to my collection.

    cr

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted February 2, 2017 at 3:35 am | Permalink

      Everybody (to a first approximation) has done it. Besides those listed so far in this thread, there’s also Arlo Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Mathis, Harry Belafonte,
      Emmylou Harris, Hayley Westenra, (and that’s just the first few names I recognise from Youtube).

      It seems to be almost impossible to make it sound bad (though I’m sure someone somewhere has managed it).

      After listening to many versions I’m not sure whether Shenandoah was a river, a girl, or a girl’s father, but it really doesn’t matter.

      I think Sissel’s is still my favourite though.

      cr

    • Dominic
      Posted February 2, 2017 at 3:42 am | Permalink

      Oops! Did not see that you had already put her up! Sorry!

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted February 2, 2017 at 5:40 am | Permalink

        No worries, I don’t have exclusive rights 🙂

        As it happens, you linked a different performance from the one I did. Yours has a [sort-of-flute-sounding-instrument] accompaniment, which makes it sound quite different from the one I linked to. It’s interesting to compare the two.

        cr

    • Christopher Bonds
      Posted February 2, 2017 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

      Nesbitt plays fine and is lovely but moves around too much for my taste. I don’t believe that is necessary to show that you are feeling the music. I like the violinist at the beginning of Sissel’s performance. [Disclaimer: I am a violinist.]

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted February 3, 2017 at 3:26 am | Permalink

        I think, to put it in context, the movement is part of the performance. The number that follows it is an Irish jig where she dances with a partner (while playing). Group’s called ‘Celtic Woman’ and its producer is the same guy who produced ‘Riverdance’, so it’s a show rather than just a musical performance.

        If it were just a violin recital I’d agree with you, but I think in context it’s okay.

        Re Sissel’s violinist, if you follow ‘my’ link above to her performance (which is a different occasion from Dominic’s below), you’ll see the same violinist but the musical scoring is different, the [flute-like instrument] is absent and the violin more prominent.

        cr

        • Christopher Bonds
          Posted February 3, 2017 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

          Thanks! I had assumed there was only one Sissel performance of the song. I like the emphasis on violin of course.

  23. Dominic
    Posted February 2, 2017 at 3:41 am | Permalink

    Try this version by Sissel Kyrkjebø

  24. Kevin
    Posted February 2, 2017 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Listening to Paul since last night. Life is good.

    • Christopher Bonds
      Posted February 2, 2017 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

      Features Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains on tin whistle. The violinist is very good, although I didn’t know of him.

  25. nicky
    Posted February 2, 2017 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Knew Robeson and Morrison, Tenessee Ernie Ford is new to me. Very beautiful, possibly the one I prefer. Thank you.

  26. revelator60
    Posted February 2, 2017 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    One of the lushest and most beautiful versions of Shenandoah is this performance by Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6mm1VpmmAo

    There’s also a lovely medley of “Shenandoah” with “Red River Valley” on Kunzel’s CD “Round Up,” a terrific collection of Western songs from folk music and movies, including the all-time best version of “The Magnificent Seven.”

  27. Christopher Bonds
    Posted February 2, 2017 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    This.

    • Christopher Bonds
      Posted February 2, 2017 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

      The group is Chanticleer.

  28. Filippo
    Posted February 2, 2017 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    I heartily recommend the Kingston Trio’s version. Very nice three-part harmony.

    Highly recommend Ernie Ford’s version of “River of No Return.”

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 2, 2017 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

      The Kingston Trio’s version is my fave–of course I adored them, bought all their albums which I played to death…Saw ’em live in their prime, the first concert I really remember loving. My friend & I waited at the stage door afterward & got their autographs…

      Sometime after I left home my Mom threw out that program, along with all my early Beatles memorabilia and a ton of other stuff I’d thought was safe to leave at home for a while…

  29. HaggisForBrains
    Posted February 3, 2017 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    I hadn’t heard the Van Morrison version before, but you’re right – it sent shivers down my spine! Thank you.


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