According to Wikipedia‘s entry on “Oh Shenandoah,” the song’s melody may be a voyageur melody.
Sea Songs and Shanties, Collected by W.B. Whall, Master Mariner (First edition in Nov 1910), states that the song probably originated from American or Canadian “voyageurs”, who were great singers. Thomas Moore drew inspiration from them in his Canadian Boat Song. The author further goes on and states that he heard it sung over fifty years prior to publishing the book, which place its origin at least a fair bit earlier than 1860. Besides sung at sea, this song figured in old public school collections. (info taken from page one in the sixth edition of the book)[i]
When I read this information, I remembered that Grace Lee Nute states, in The Voyageur,[ii] that the pièce or bale the voyageurs had to carry on their back during portage:
was made up to weigh ninety pounds, and two ears were left at the top by which the voyageur could lift it easily in the manner of a modern flour bag. Two of these pièces made an ordinary load for porraging, but emulation among the men in proof of unusual stregth or endurance caused many an engagé to carry three or four.
Grace Lee Nute then goes on to write the following:
A member of a famous Negro-Indian family of voyageurs, the Bongas, is said to have had such strength that he could carry five.
Therefore, the melody used in Oh Shenandoah could find its origin in the voyageur’s répertoire and we may know how it happened: Bongas.
As for the lyrics to Oh Shenandoah, they differ from singer to singer. So, I’ve tried to write down the words used by Paul Robeson. There are words (2nd stanza), I could not make out, but you may.1) Oh Shenandoah, I long to hear you, Away you rolling river. Oh Shenandoah, I long to hear you, Away, I’m bound to go, ’cross the wide Missouri. 2) Oh Shenandoah, I took on the ocean, Away you rolling river. To sail across The stormy ocean, Away, I’m bound to go, ’cross the wide Missouri. 3) ’tis seven long years, Since last I see thee, Away you rolling river. ’tis seven long years, Since last I see thee, Away, I’m bound to go, ’cross the wide Missouri. 4) Oh Shenandoah, I long to hear you, Away you rolling river. Oh Shenandoah, I long to hear you, Away, I’m bound to go, ’cross the wide Missouri. ________________________ [i] “Oh Shenandoah,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oh_Shenandoah [ii] Grace Lee Nute, The Voyageur (Minnesota Historical Society, 1955), p. 38. © Micheline Walker August 15th, 2012 WordPress