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I've been looking at some arrangements of "O Shenandoah", and am utterly confused about the lyrics. First of all: None make too much sense. I always thought it was about a river, but a good number of online sources such as Wikipedia claim it is about the Oneida Iroquois chief Shenandoah's daughter Sally.

A few things supporting the ‘river’ interpretation:

  • Many songs make little to no reference to Native Americans (see the Tennessee Ernie Ford version on Wikipedia)
  • Why is the song addressed to Shenandoah if it's all about his daughter?
  • The real chief Shenandoah/Schenando/other versions of his name didn't live anywhere near the Missouri
  • This lyric makes even less sense in the chief interpretation: "When she rolls down, her topsails shiver"
  • The vocative case at one point is used on Shenandoah and then on the river

A few things supporting the ‘chief’ interpretation:

  • What would a river's daughter be?
  • Why would so many versions reference Native Americans?

A few possibilities to consider:

  • Could there be two songs, one about rivers and one about a chief and his daughter, that got conflated into one song?
  • Wikipedia lists 4 different lyrics
  • Only one of those references Native Americans or Native American customs other than the name Shenandoah

So, here's the question:

Does anybody have further evidence to back one possibility, or an interpretation of the lyrics that shows how it makes sense? Furthermore, does anybody know of a version earlier than a supposedly pre-1860 sailing song found on Wikipedia?

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The primary source (the songwriter) is unavailable so we must rely for our understanding of the on the most authoritative references we have access to.

The U.S. Library of Congress (LOC) conjects that the song " probably did not originate later than the Civil War." The LOC in turn references [Alan Lomax][2]

American folklorist Alan Lomax suggested that "Shenandoah" was a sea-shanty and that the "composers" quite possibly were French-Canadian voyageurs...The formal structure of a shanty is simple: it consists of a solo lead that alternates with a boisterous chorus.

The LOC further states, more as an afterthought:

As unclear as is the song’s origin, so is the definitive interpretation of its text. Some believe that the song refers to the river of the same name. Others suggest that it is of Native American origin, for it tells the tale of Sally, the daughter of the Indian Chief Shenandoah, who is courted for seven years by a white Missouri river trader.

The LOC cites the earliest known publication of the song in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (1882). Their website contains an excerpt from "Sailor Songs,"by William L. Alden, in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, vol. 65, no. 286 (July 1882), p. 283.

An equally august reference, the Financial Times of London (FT), asserts that the song, pronounced " Shanandore", is "a sea shanty, a logging song, a fur traders’ ballad" about “this world of misery”. The FT summaries a number of possible origins of the song:

· A fur trapper song about a trader, possibly inspired by Jim Bridger who falls in love with Sally (sometimes Nancy), the daughter of Shenandoah, a Native American chief.

· A “floating song”, making its way down river to the sea, where it became a capstan song, sung on ships while the anchor was hauled up.

· A logging song, first sung by the logging men coming in from the woods, in the spring of the year.

· African-American origins, based on eyewitness accounts of the song being sung during the loading and unloading wool and cotton from ships in the late 19th century.

[2]: http://research.culturalequity.org/home-audio.jsp

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Asking the same question as you, I found the following analysis of Shenandoah on a blog: http://shantiesfromthesevenseas.blogspot.ca/2012/04/115-118-120-shenandoah-series.html

It seems to me a more credible argument than the wikipedia article as the blog author recognizes that the sea chanty or shanty is a form that evolves over time and trying to make coherent sense out of the lyrics is perhaps asking too much.

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    Hi Christopher and welcome to the site! Can you include a a quote from the article you cite (or even better, a summary)? We prefer those to link only answers in the case that the link eventually goes dead. Commented Nov 14, 2017 at 16:14
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The most commonly-sung, modern-day lyrics of Shenandoah obviously refer to Oneida Chief Shenandoah (AKA John Skenandoa), an imposing figure who really did exist, and the love the singer has for his daughter. It has nothing to do with the Shenandoah River, which, according to legend, was named by George Washington in honor of Chief Shenandoah for his help against the British during the Revolutionary War. That may or may not be true; however, the river referenced in the song is the Missouri, which would have been a very long way from the singer's beloved Indian maiden in what is now upstate New York.

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    "obviously" is not a helpful way to answer a question. If it were obvious, the question would not have been answered. Do you have any sources to back up your assertions? Commented Apr 10 at 11:37

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