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.