I got to thinking about the old song, “Oh Shenandoah,” this weekend, for no important reason. It’s one of The Divine Sissel’s favorite numbers (as witness the video above). She says she learned it from a Norwegian sea captain, which is no surprise, since one of its many permutations over the years has been its service as a sea shanty. It’s certainly one of America’s most beautiful native songs, and also one of its most versatile and mysterious.
In fact, one has to ask, “What in Burl Ives’ name is the song about, anyway?” It addresses Shenandoah, which we all know to be a river and a valley in Virginia, but then it talks about “the wide Missouri,” thousands of miles away. This is the question I set out to answer, sparing no expense in consulting a sophisticated new technology called Wikipedia.
Well. Turns out it’s not about the Shenandoah Valley (or river) at all. There was a guy named Shenandoah.
Shenandoah (or Skenandoa) was an elected chief of the Oneida tribe in the 18th Century. He lived to be, apparently, 110 years old. He assisted the American side in the Revolution, providing (or so it is said) needed supplies to them at Valley Forge. Washington, so the story goes, admired him so much that he went home to Virginia and named a river after him.
He was converted to Christianity and took the name John Shenandoah. The minister who baptized him, Samuel Kirkland, became a lifelong friend. Kirkland founded what is today Hamilton College, Clinton, New York, and the chief and the missionary are buried side by side on the college grounds.
So that’s where the Shenandoah of the song comes from. Only there’s no reason to think John S. had anything to do with the events described in the song, which are entirely out of character for him. The writer just needed an Indian name, and Shenandoah scanned well.
We don’t know who wrote “Oh Shenandoah,” but it seems to have first been sung by traders and voyageurs along the Missouri River in the early 1800s. In the song, a trader falls in love with the chief’s daughter and asks for her hand, but is rebuffed because he’s white. But then another trader comes along with “fire water,” and the chief gives the girl to him. The singer paddles away “across the wide Missouri” in grief.
Over time many versions have appeared, many with little relation to the original concept. Which is how folk songs work, after all.