Friday, January 17, 2014

The Black Roots Of The Song "Shenandoah", Part II (1930s New York Times Letters)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part II of a three part series on the folk song "Oh Shenandoah". This post provides transcripts of two 1930 "Times" letters to the editor about "Oh Shenandoah" and one synopsis of another 1930 "Times" letter to the editor about that song. I am assuming that "the Times" here means the London Times (newspaper).

Click for Part I of this series.

Part I provides information about the origin of this song and a sound file of Paul Robinson singing that song.

Click for Part III of this series.

Part III provides comments about and lyrics to Caribbean songs that are derived from "Oh Shenandoah". These songs are known by the title "This World Of Misery", "Oh My Rolling River", "Solid Fas'" ("Solid Fast'), and other titles.

The content of this post is presented for folkloric, historical, cultural, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Editor: Hat tip to slam2011, a retired librarian from the United Kingdom for sending me files of three 1930 letters that were published in the Times. These letters are part of what that retired UK librarian described as a "debate on the song "Shenandoah". In addition to sending me the files of these letters, slam2011 also summarized their content, and provided information about their writers. Here's slam2011's information about these letter writers:

Regarding Rev. A. A. Brockington: "He was an English clergyman who seems to have had an interest in folk songs generally and shanties in particular... He had an American friend in San Francisco, a former sailor called J.E. Laidlaw, who'd often heard 'Shenandoah' sung at sea... The Brockington letter was published in ''The Times'' on September 12 1930, on page 8.

Regarding R. L. Andrewes: "He'd sailed aboard the clipper ships in the Australian wool trade in the 1880s, which is where he heard 'Shenandoah'. His letter was published in ''The Times'' on September 19, 1930 (page 6).

Regarding Clive Carey (1883-1968): [He was a] "Concert singer, folk-song collector and writer, opera director etc., but not by any means a sailor. "Carey's letter was the very last in the sequence, and was published October 1, 1930, on page 8."
slam2011 also wrote "I left out some letters from various others who got into the debate, because only Brockington, Andrewes and Carey really knew what they were talking about. The other correspondents were suggesting silly things, such as that it was all corrupted Latin plainsong."

Letter #1: A. A. Brockington letter
Origin In A Negro Spiritual?

Editors of The Times:
Sir: Unless the interest in this famous sea chanty “Shenandoah” is exhausted, you may be willing to give publicity to some further details. The new information is mainly gathered out of letters sent to me in connexion with the recent correspondence in the Times.

The Rec. J. W. Eisdell heard many chanteys during voyages to Australia in the eighties, none more frequently than “Shenandoah”, and he agrees that ”Shanadar” was the regular pronunciation. Mr. J. E. Laidlaw, of San Francisco heard the following: ”Shanadar” , “Challingor”, “Shanabar”, and “Trannabar”. He had no doubt, however, that the name referred was the river “Shenandoah”. Here are the words to the chanty as sung in 1894 by a Barbados negro in the Glasgo ship Harland: -

“Oh Shenandoah, I hear you calling!
Away, you rolling river!
Yes, far away I hear you calling.
Ha, Ha, I’m bound away across the wide Missouri

My girl, she’s gone far from the river
Away, you rolling river!
I ain’t gonna see her never
I’m bound away, &c

Mr Laidlaw spent some times in sailing ships, nearly all of them British, in the nineties, and there were many surviving chantymen. He made several voyages with “chequer-board” crews- one “watch” white” and the other negro”-and “Shenandoah” was a favorite chantey, “in spite, he says, “of its lack of the usual rhythm of a capstan song”. I have to defer to the opinion of so experienced a voyager, but I remember Mr. John Short, of Watchet, who sang the song for Cecil Sharp, was emphatic in calling it a good capstan chantey. Perhaps he himself, an old chanteyman, had successfully adapted the tune for his proper purpose. In that case, the Cecil Sharp version ought to be received as authoritative. Of course, rhythm is everything, or nearly everything.

As to the origin of the tune, Mr. Laidlaw believes that some sailor heard it sung presumably by an American or West Indian negro, in a cotton port, and appropriated it as a sea-song. This sea-going adventure happened to “John Brown’s Body”, and “Bonnie Laddie”, as well as to the most ancient negro hymn now known as “Leave her, Johnny, leave her.”
Shenandoah has had other adventures. It is the traditional song of the 9th and 10th Calvary Regiments of the United States Army. These are negro regiments, officered by “whites”. Mr. Laidlaw heard it sung, almost word for word as the sailor of Harland sung it by a captain in the 9th U.S. Calvary in 1926 at Monterey Presidio.

I suggest, therefore, that the title and tune belonged to the negro spiritual, “Shenandoah” becoming a local symbol for the river of life. Negro spirituals abound in references to the mysterious life-stream. Nor are English folk songs lacking in such references. One of the most beautiful is “Waly Waly”, beginning: ”The water is wide, I cannot get o’er. The tune of “Waly Waly” has a certain affinity to “Shenandoah”.

Yours, &c;,
A.A. Brockington
87 Canning-street, Liverpool"

Letter #2: R. L. Andrewes letter
To the Editor of the Times

Sir,-The revival of this subject in your columns prompts me to offer van explanation of the variation in the title such as your correspondent, Mr. A. A. Brockington suggests- naming “Shanadar”, “Callingor”, “Shanabar”, “Tanabar”. I also heard “Shallow Bar” used.
This chantey is obviously of American origin, whether it is a spiritual or not is difficult to say, but as nearly all work done in the old slave days by the negro population had a tendency that way, and wherever possible had music introduced, it might quite reasonably be concluded that the chanteys originated in America were spirituals.

“Shenandoah” was more a wool and cotton chantey than a capstan chantey. I have had many times heard it sung down the hold of the wool screws by the Sydney waterside workers, who were always old deep-water men, and many were full-blood negroes, who were undoubtedly brought these chanteys off the cotton ships. The reason the names varies so much is because it has been used by men of so many different nationalities. I’ve heard it sung by certainly English, Scots, Danes, Norwegians, Swedes, Dutch, and negroes. These men were all uneducated, had music in them, but lacked accuracy in pronunciation.

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 screw. There are many chanteys of English origin, but they could never be termed spirituals. I don’t know if they were used on American ships, but undoubtedly there were many of American origin on the great soft wood clippers of that country which did originate as spirituals.

Yours, &c.
R. L. Andrewes
Coombs, Oxon, Sept. 13. "

Letter #3: Clive Carey Letter [Summary by slam2011]
...”there's another letter from the same series attached. It's arguing for the 'voyageurs' origin, and puts some fair points, like querying Brockington's assumption that all African American songs were originally spirituals. On the other hand, the writer is basing his argument on a version of the lyrics printed in 1910. This is pretty late! By that time not only other, non-American shantymen might have added their input, but sea-shanties were becoming a musical art form. So there was opportunity for the original lyrics to become corrupted, and then elaborated into something of a parlour ballad for the benefit of the song's new audience.

That's just my hunch.”

The word "negro" used above is an outdated referent for people of Black African descent in the United States -and/or in this context-in the Caribbean (West Indies). Prior to it being replaced by the term "black [or "Black"] people", for contemporaneous usages of the referent "Negro", the first letter of that referent was and is spelled with a capital letter.

Rather than being categorized as a religious song [a spiritual], "Oh Shenandoah" is now categorized as a folk song that probably came from either a land based work song or a maritime work song [shanty/chantey].

"A shanty (also spelled "chantey," "chanty") is a type of work song that was once commonly sung to accompany labor on board large merchant sailing vessels...

Capstan shanty:[26]
Raising the anchor on a ship involved winding its rope around a capstan, a sort of giant winch, turned by sailors heaving wooden bars while walking around it. Other heavy tasks might also be assisted by using a capstan. Being a continuous action, shanties sung to accompany these tasks might have longer solo verses and, frequently, a "grand chorus," in addition to the call-and-response form. Examples: "Santianna", "Paddy Lay Back," "Rio Grande," "Clear the Track, Let the Bulgine Run," "Shenandoah", and "John Brown's Body." "

This concludes Part II of this series.

Thanks to the writers of this comments for helping to document the history of the song "Oh Shenandoah". Thanks also to slam2011 for alerting me to these letters and sending me files of these letters.

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.

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