Friday, August 21, 2015

"Michael Row the Boat Ashore" -- some background and "D-for-dulcimer" tab on an early African American spiritual

Notes on a song we played at Thursday night's Prairieland Strings jam session. "D-for-dulcimer" tablature and lead sheets are available online.

Commercial arrangments of the song are usually published in G or A, but there's a nice version with chords and the melody in standard notation at:

Barbara Feick Gregory has dulcimer tab in DAD with lyrics and guitar chords at:

And the website at -- scroll down the directory to "Michael ..." by Peter Widenmeyer. ("Einfaches Arrangement" is how they say "simple arrangement" in German). Or you can open the PDF file at

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Most of us of a certain age know "Michael Row the Boat Ashore" as a summer camp song, one we sang in between "Kumbaya" and roasting marshmallows on a stick, but it is much older than that. First set to standard musical notation in 1863 in Port Royal, S.C., it was originally a work song, sung by African American slaves as they rowed across the waters surrounding the Sea Islands of the Carolina and Georgia low country. It was also a spiritual, in a day and a culture that didn't make distinctions between sacred and secular music. In fact it is one of the oldest black spirituals.

All of which gives it an energy and a surging call-and-response rhythm I don't think we quite captured in the Episcopal church camps of my youth.

Of the many versions available on YouTube, the one that I think comes the closest to the original is this performance by the Glory Gospel Singers, of New York City, in concert in Barmstedt, Germany, earlier this year:

The Glory Gospel Singers' sound strikes me as contemporary African American gospel, but "Michael" is one of the first spirituals written down by abolitionists from New England during the Civil War. It originated well before that, as a work song that kept boat crews rowing together. William Russell, a war correspondent for the Times of London who toured behind the Confederate lines in 1861, was reminded of the voyage that ferried lost souls over the River Styx to Hades in Greek mythology:

The oarsmen, as they bent to their task, beguiled the way by singing in unison a real [N]egro melody. ... It was a barbaric sort of madrigal, in which one singer beginning was followed by the others in unison, repeating the refrain in chorus, and full of quaint expression and melancholy:-- ... To me it was a strange scene. The stream, dark as Lethe, flowing between the silent, houseless, rugged banks, lighted up near the landing by the fire in the woods, which reddened the sky--the wild strain, and the unearthly adjurations to the singers' souls, as though they were palpable, put me in mind of the fancied voyage across the Styx.

"Michael" was collected in an 1867 book titled Slave Songs of the United States (available online from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill at, compiled by abolitionist teachers who worked with the freed slaves who fled to the federal lines after the Union Army landed in South Carolina and set up a supply depot around Port Royal. One of the teachers named William Francis Allen, who had heard similar work songs in seaports up north, explained how the call-and-response of African American singing helped dock workers pace themselves:

Some of the best pure [N]egro songs I have ever heard were those that used to be sung by the black stevedores, or perhaps the crews themselves, of the West India vessels, loading and unloading at the wharves in Philadelphia and Baltimore. 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 [verse] 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.

Allen noted that the work songs combined sacred and secular lyrics -- "I know only one pure boat-song, the fine lyric, "Michael row the boat ashore" (No. 31 [in the book]); and this I have no doubt is a real spiritual -- it being the archangel Michael that is addressed." He quoted Charles Pickard Ware, who actually collected the song, at some length:

"As I have written these tunes," says Mr. Ware, "two measures are to be sung to each stroke, the first measure being accented by the beginning of the stroke, the second by the rattle of the oars in the row-locks. On the passenger boat at the [Beaufort] ferry, they rowed from sixteen to thirty strokes a minute; twenty-four was the average. Of the tunes I have heard, I should say that ... 'Lay this body down' (No. 26), 'Religion so sweet' (No.17), and 'Michael row' (No. 31), were used when the load was heavy or the tide was against us."

That's how Allen heard it, as he described it in a diary quoted by Dena Epstein in her Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War (Urbana: U of I Press, 2003), which is probably the best book available on the origins of African American music:

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 …
(Quoted in Martha Bayless. “Michael Boat a Gospel Boat: ‘Wild and Strangely Fascinating’” The Past is a Foreign Country, June 8 2013

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