“Oh, Shenandoah, I long to see you…” I’ve always wondered who the singer longed to see in this song. A person? A place? Some other kind of noun? It seems there’s no clear answer as to the intention of the song. Some say it’s about an Indian Chief’s daughter. Others say it’s about the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. What is certain is that by the 1880′s, “Shenandoah” had become a favorite song of river boatmen and sea-faring sailors around the world. Of course, each singer added his own set of lyrics and layers of meaning. (I say “his” because there weren’t too many women sailors knocking about in the 19th century.) In class, I love singing songs with this kind of rich history — it reminds me that music is something that connects us to generations past and future. In 30 years, our children will likely sing “Shenandoah” at some point, while the latest iPhone app or episodes of “Mad Men” will be long forgotten. (Hey, I love John Hamm, too, but I won’t remember in 30 years that he disappeared from his daughter’s birthday party on a cake run that lasted 5 hours. OK…maybe that’s a bad example.)
There are loads of singers and instrumentalists on YouTube giving “Shenandoah” a try, and it’s fun to poke around and see what’s out there. Here’s one I found by Suzy Bogguss (love that name) at this year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin. She’s singing in a bar, accompanied by guitar, upright bass (with a bow!), and harmonica, while the unseen patrons talk and talk — at least until they get up and dance. Suzy’s singing is lovely and soulful, and you can clearly see and hear the instruments in action. I wonder what the two-year-olds out there will think of the harmonica? Let me know!