Today you were wondering, “What is the most amazing song in the history of campfire songs?” The answer is that the most amazing song in the history of campfire songs is “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.” It might even be the most amazing song in the history of any kind of song. And I’m here to prove it.
In case it’s been a while since you sang around the campfire, here’s Pete Seeger singing the song with a large crowd.
Singing it in a group is appropriate, because “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” comes from one of the oldest traditions of songs — perhaps the oldest of all — which is work songs: songs you sing while you work, usually communally. They tend to accompany rhythmical activities, such as walking, chopping wood, and the like, and they tend to have a call-and-response structure. Work songs have pretty much died out in Western culture, but reminders of the tradition turn up in various byways. In the U.S. the strongest survival of the tradition was among prison work gangs and slaves, who had brought the tradition over from Africa. The African tradition shows up in the porter scene of the Stewart Granger version of King Solomon’s Mines (1950), a clip which annoyingly does not show up on YouTube, but which you can watch if you want to pay $1.99 for the full movie on YouTube.
But for those with less time and money, there’s a wonderful thirty-minute film made by Pete Seeger and others in 1966, capturing the tradition of prison work songs just before it died. It’s called Afro-American Work Songs in a Texas Prison, and you can watch it free here. It’s worth sampling just the opening for the song the prisoners sing while chopping wood.
And in the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother Where Art Thou?, the chain gang that opens the film are singing as they work, and the recording is taken from an actual chain gang, recorded at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in 1959. It can be heard here. The prisoners were singing “Po’ Lazarus” (lyrics here) as they chopped wood, led by a prisoner named James Carter. They were recorded by Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins, and the song appeared on Lomax’s 1959 album Bad Man Ballads. Skip ahead forty-one years and the recording found its way into O Brother Where Art Thou? Subsequently Alan Lomax’s daughter became determined to find James Carter, the prisoner who had led the song, and finally located him in Chicago. She flew there to present him with a royalty check from the film soundtrack, as well as the news that his singing was outselling Michael Jackson’s latest CD. Carter replied, “You tell Michael that I’ll slow down so that he can catch up with me.” More details about all of this here.
Work songs are known worldwide; another type in the Western tradition is the waulking song, a type of song sung in Scotland while women waulked cloth. Waulking consists of beating newly woven cloth to make it denser, an activity that was performed communally and that has the rhythmic properties necssary for a work song. Here’s a nice example: “Horo Gun Togainn air Hùgan Fhathast” (“Horo Once More I Would Shout for Joy”), a Gaelic waulking song from Nova Scotia, where they call them milling songs. (Lyrics and translation here.)
By now you can see where this is leading. “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” is a gorgeous example of a work song, a rowing song first sung by slaves. It was first collected by Charles Pickard Ware in two versions, both from South Carolina. Ware included both versions in the 1867 collection Slave Songs of the United States.
The preface of the book describes some of the slave work songs:
I have stood for more than an hour, often, listening to them, as they hoisted and lowered the hogsheads and boxes of their cargoes; one man taking the burden of the song (and the slack of the rope) and the others striking in with the chorus. They would sing in this way more than a dozen different songs in an hour; most of which might indeed be warranted to contain ‘nothing religious’–a few of them, ‘on the contrary, quite the reverse’–but generally rather innocent and proper in their language, and strangely attractive in their music; and with a volume of voice that reached a square or two away. That plan of labor has now passed away, in Philadelphia at least, and the songs, I suppose, with it. So that these performances are to be heard only among black sailors on their vessels, or ’long-shore men in out-of-the-way places, where opportunities for respectable persons to hear them are rather few.
These are the songs that are still heard upon the Mississippi steamboats–wild and strangely fascinating–one of which we have been so fortunate as to secure for this collection. This, too, is no doubt the music of the colored firemen of Savannah, graphically described by Mr. Kane O’Donnel, in a letter to the Philadelphia Press, and one of which he was able to contribute for our use. Mr. E. S. Philbrick was struck with the resemblance of some of the rowing tunes at Port-Royal to the boatmen’s songs he had heard upon the Nile.
So when the song calls upon Michael to help row the boat ashore, it is referring to its immediate situation — it’s not hypothetical; the singers are genuinely rowing as they sing. But who’s this Michael? He’s the archangel Michael. Christian tradition had long considered Michael a psychopomp, the angel who conveyed the souls of the dead to heaven, based on Luke 16:22 and other passages. The later verses of the song make the religious character of the journey very evident.
Being a folk song, there are innumerable versions, but the one I learned back at Whispering Pines Camp was this:
Michael, row the boat ashore, hallelujah!
Michael, row the boat ashore. Hallelujah!
Sister help to trim the sail, hallelujah
Sister help to trim the sail. Hallelujah!
The river Jordan is muddy and cold, hallelujah!
Chills the body but not the soul. Hallelujah!
The river Jordan is deep and wide, hallelujah!
Milk and honey on the other side. Hallelujah
Michael, row the boat ashore, hallelujah!
Michael, row the boat ashore. Hallelujah!
Some versions follow “The river Jordan is deep and wide” with “See my mother on the other side,” which makes the point even more clearly. The river Jordan is the river that must be crossed before coming to Paradise and the afterlife — the land of milk and honey. (Numbers 14:8: “If the Lord delight in us, then he will bring us into this land, and give it us; a land which floweth with milk and honey.”)
So the song equates the rowing of the boat in the here and now with the rowing we do through life, asking the help of Michael to make us strong enough to reach Paradise. I’ve seen poetry with this symbolic dimension — it’s what poetry does for a living — and I’ve heard working songs, but I’ve never heard a working song with this symbolic dimension, made all the more material because the singers would be pulling at the oars while singing.
The words are somewhat attenuated in the modern versions, and here we should look at the versions collected by Ware. He notes that the wording is very fluid and sometimes improvised. The version he heard near Port Royal went as follows:
Michael row de boat ashore, Hallelujah!
Michael boat a gospel boat, Hallelujah!
I wonder where my mudder deh ( = there).
See my mudder on de rock gwine [=go/going] home.
On de rock gwine home in Jesus’ name.
Michael boat a music boat.
Gabriel blow de trumpet horn.
O you mind your boastin’ talk.
Boastin’ talk will sink your soul.
Brudder, lend a helpin’ hand.
Sister, help for trim dat boat.
Jordan stream is wide and deep.
Jesus stand on t’oder side.
I wonder if my maussa deh.
My fader gone to unknown land.
O de Lord he plant his garden deh.
He raise de fruit for you to eat.
He dat eat shall neber die.
When de riber overflow.
O poor sinner, how you land?
Riber run and darkness comin’.
Sinner row to save your soul.
In my campfire days I always wondered who the sister was and why Michael’s sister had no name, but this makes it clear: the sister is any of us, as is the brother.
Ware collected an alternate version from Hilton Head:
Michael haul the boat ashore.
Then you’ll hear the horn they blow.
Then you’ll hear the trumpet sound.
Trumpet sound the world around.
Trumpet sound for rich and poor.
Trumpet sound the jubilee.
Trumpet sound for you and me.
The English actress Fanny Kemble married the plantation owner Pierce Butler and wrote a shocking exposé of plantation life. She described slaves singing boat songs as they rowed on the Altamaha in 1839, and one of the songs sounds very much like the Hilton Head version of “Michael, Row”: “Another ditty to which they frequently treat me they call Caesar’s song; it is an extremely spirited war-song, beginning ‘The trumpets blow, the bugles sound — Oh stand your ground!”
On these boat songs she wrote:
The way in which the chorus strikes the burthen, between each phrase of the melody chanted by a single voice, is very curious and effective, especially with the rhythm of the rowlocks for accompaniment. The high voices all in unison, and the admirable time and true accent with which their responses are made, always make me wish that some great musical composer could hear these semi-savage performances.
William Francis Allen, the cousin of C. P. Ware, heard it in 1864, as he noted in his diary:
Sunday, March 20, 1864…. we had wind and tide against us, and a heavy load, so we were not home till near seven … there was a full moon and the men sang most of the way as they rowed. It was curious to see how their rowing flagged — for they were quite tired — the moment the singing stopped. It wasn’t a very good set of singers, still I was very glad to hear them, for I have heard very little boat music. They sang “Michael row,” “Hold your Light,” and several others… (from Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals, p. 353)
Even gathered into collections, the vast majority of these songs have died out of popular tradition, and the voices of the slaves, convicts and workers are silent. But isn’t it amazing that one of their songs has endured? Simultaneously you can see them pulling on the oars in the great waters of South Carolina and as they enter Paradise. And when you listen to the song in your mind, you can still hear them singing.
Extra bonus info:
A wonderful page on work songs, from Shakers to the Song of the Volga Boatmen, with some recordings.
On early American black music: Dena J. Polacheck Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War
And a memory of a solitary English maiden singing her work song, in a poem that expresses the unknowability and the haunting qualities of the past —
Behold her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland Lass!
Reaping and singing by herself;
Stop here, or gently pass!
Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
And sings a melancholy strain;
O listen! for the Vale profound
Is overflowing with the sound.
No Nightingale did ever chaunt
More welcome notes to weary bands
Of travellers in some shady haunt,
Among Arabian sands:
A voice so thrilling ne’er was heard
In spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird,
Breaking the silence of the seas
Among the farthest Hebrides.
Will no one tell me what she sings?—
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago:
Or is it some more humble lay,
Familiar matter of to-day?
Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
That has been, and may be again?
Whate’er the theme, the Maiden sang
As if her song could have no ending;
I saw her singing at her work,
And o’er the sickle bending;–
I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.