Tuesday, 3 May 2022

Oh, Shenandoah

If you’d asked me at any time up to the end of March where I would be spending Easter this year, a cabin on the banks of the Shenandoah River would have been the last place I’d have guessed. True, I knew we would be in the USA, but I had no idea of being anywhere except in Maryland. Shenandoah – the River, the Valley and the National Park – were simply not on my horizon.  But there we were: in a cabin at the far end of Bumgardener’s Ford Road (an attempted anglicising of Baumgartner, one hopes), a gritty track off a road passing through Rileyville, Virginia. This cabin was built, like its neighbours, on stilts in anticipation of flood levels overtopping the steep banks at the bottom of our garden. From a rocking chair on the cabin’s wrap-around porch, I had a good view of the river: fifty yards across, and not too fast-flowing for an occasional canoe, picked out by the sun, to make steady progress upstream despite occasional rapids.  I could just make out a small child watching her father fishing. 

In the distance beyond the river – at this point, the south fork of the Shenandoah – loomed the George Washington National Forest; behind us, the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah National Park. It was all new and strange to me, but this was one of those rare places, and rare moments, where I felt at once and unexpectedly at home and happy – and knew this to be so. I remembered Auden: ‘Moments of happiness do not come often’; I remembered, too, an autumn afternoon at school in 1965, when my teacher asked me to tease out these lines from TS Eliot’s Four Quartets:

For most of us, there is only the unattended 

Moment, the moment in and out of time,

The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight …


 I remembered, moreover, the moment I first became aware of Shenandoah: Boxing Day, 1957. I was eight years old; every year we went to stay with my uncle and aunt for a family Christmas party. It was always a musical occasion; my cousins were promising musicians and expected to perform, which they duly did – on flute, recorder, piano. After supper we all sang carols before my brother and I were packed off to bed. I was disappointed, because my uncle had recently invested in something I had never seen before, a radiogram. Our home boasted only a wheezing harmonium and a wind-up gramophone for which there were just three 78rpm records: ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’ (Kathleen Ferrier), ‘The Wings of a Dove’ (Ernest Lough) and ‘The Song of The Volga Boatmen’ by goodness knows whom. Now my cousins were going to demonstrate the radiogram’s potential by playing some of their new records – Christmas presents, no doubt. I longed to be able to stay and listen.

As it happens, I was able to listen - after a fashion. My uncle’s house was a bungalow, but with one narrow room upstairs – a loft conversion – and this is where we used to sleep. As I lay in bed I could at least hear snatches of music below, wafting up through the floorboards. What I heard was ‘Shenandoah’. I had never known singing like this: a folk song, part African-American (in those days simply ‘negro’) spiritual, part slow-motion sea-shanty.  The recording my cousins were playing was by Harry Belafonte, who gave to the song a tone of infinite sadness and yearning I had never heard before and have never forgotten. The opening words, as Belafonte sang them, came out like a huge sigh:


Oh, Shenandoah,

I long to hear you,

Away, you rolling river ….


Insofar as I understood the words at all, the song was a lament for a river the singer – flatboatman?, tea-clipper sailor? trapper? - loved but might never see again (‘Away I’m bound to go’). And for me, from then until I found myself last month sitting on its very banks, this had only ever been a river of the imagination, one with perhaps the same sort of significance as the river Jordan in ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’:


I looked over Jordan and what did I see,

Coming for to carry me home?

I saw a band of angels coming after me

Coming for to carry me home.


Now, however, I realise that ‘Shenandoah’, the song, has an almost infinite number of variations on its original lyrics – whatever those may have been.  (It is not least of the charms of oral literature, whether Beowulf or one of the border ballads from Percy’s Reliques, that by definition it is impossible to know who the original composer was or to be sure when it was composed.) It seems likely that the earliest singers of this song were early 19th century voyageurs, fur traders who had made their way by canoe as far as the wide Missouri, and that ‘Shenandoah’ referred not to the eponymous river but to a native American chieftain of that name (Skenandoa) whose daughter a trader wanted to marry. Whether he succeeded depends on whose version of the song you now listen to:  Bob Dylan for instance calls the daughter Sally, but leaves it unclear whether the fur trader has (a) abandoned Shenandoah’s daughter – ‘Away I’m bound to go’ (b) married her with her father’s reluctant approval or (c) paddled off with her anyway into the sunset.


I have always loved rivers and their river banks – the Nene from Sutton Bridge to the Wash, the Weir at Durham, the Ouse at Bedford, and now the Shenandoah river too. Since Easter, I have been listening (thanks to YouTube) to many singers singing ‘Shenanadoah’.  Bob Dylan’s recording, I’m afraid, is not even plaintive; of his contemporaries, Tom Paxton’s pleases me most. The least expected, but not least successful, setting – for orchestra, soloist and choir – is Percy Grainger’s.  But, even now, none can compare with the version I first heard, in my uncle’s house, on Boxing Day 1957: that by Harry Belafonte.

 Adrian Barlow

Note: I have written before about these quotations from Auden (in The Ascent of F6) and Eliot (from ‘The Dry Salvages’) in William Blake and Eternity’s Sunrise.

Illustrations: (i) and (ii) The Shenandoah River (South Fork) Easter 2022; (iii) The cover of the 1957 Harry Belafonte LP containing the first recording of ‘Shenandoah’ I  ever heard.


  1. I've just read this at nearly eleven pm. I'm deeply touched and I'm hearing the song - marvellous as it is - in my head.

    I'll go up to bed with its peaceful haunting sound.

    Thank you!

    1. Tom, In my turn I’m touched by your reaction to my reaction to finding myself on the banks of the Shenandoah. When the TS Eliot quotation came to my mind, I resolved to reread Four Quartets for the nth time, and have astonished myself by finding it more moving and more pertinent than ever. No doubt this is because I’m well over fifty years older than when I first read the poem.

  2. Of all the songs I had to sing at school when young ,this is the song ,that ,like you ,I enjoyed singing the most.I also like the sound of the word itself
    In the basement of the huge building (now the Ladies College) opposite Christ Church .The whole basement a mass of raw timber re inforcing ,because of the war
    Also the moment when it dawned on me that I could now ,read easily
    It was a boys school called Glen Garth .