Thursday, September 30, 2010

"The Erie Canal/Low Bridge"

"The Erie Canal" song represents a confluence of many of the deepest, longest-term, most cherished and most abiding interests of my entire life. It is one of the very first songs that I ever remember hearing and singing along with, back in the very early 1950s to a children's record that featured what was probably Burl Ives' version. It reflects on what was one of the most moving chapters in early American history, which with literature has been the greatest intellectual joy of all my years. It is, as we shall see, a nostalgic reflection on a time that had already past when the song was published - and we Hibernian Americans are nothing if not nostalgic. Finally, it reflects in its lyric the best of what America used to be and can be again - a land where government in partnership with energetic individuals works best to serve the interests of the common people who work for a living, and not the interests of those already-fabulously wealthy folks who plead, then as now, for just one more break that will somehow mystically redound to the Greater Good while it further enriches them.

The Erie Canal project was the Mission to the Moon of its day - widely considered an impossible folly, it was completed on-time and at budget and began immediately to pay for itself, not only in dollars but in the improvement of the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of Americans in the Northeast, the Great Lakes region, and the Upper Midwest in general. Just as the voyage to the moon engendered directly or indirectly a plethora of useful technologies (including most of the advances that led to the computer I'm typing on and the internet to which this will be published), the Erie Canal provided an economic lifeline for all of the Americans who had moved into the old Northwest Territory that we now call the Midwest (my birthplace, not coincidentally). The Canal created a cheap and dependable transportation link that enabled farmers and miners and settlers and lumbermen to put cold, hard cash in their pockets and improve their lot and that of their families.

While canals linking Lake Erie at Buffalo, NY with the Hudson River (and consequently the Atlantic Ocean) at Albany had been proposed as early as the 1760s, it took the vision of career politician (an honorable term, once upon a time) DeWitt Clinton to realize the dream. Clinton had held virtually every important office in the short history of the state of New York - state legislator, mayor of NYC, U.S. representative and senator (and nearly successful presidential candidate), lieutenant governor, and finally governor. In the latter two capacities, Clinton cajoled, bullied, and persuaded the NY legislature to budget $7 million to build the canal - an unthinkable, TARP-like sum at the time, when the federal budget in DC was a mere $19 million per year. Clinton understood that no amount of privatization or outsourcing could make this project happen. It was a government enterprise all the way, and it was government that succeeded in accomplishing a task that most rational people thought impossible.

It took a mere seven years to complete the 363 mile "ditch," including 83 locks that enabled the flat-bottomed barges to rise the 600 foot differential between Albany and Buffalo. It was the most stupendous and amazing feat of civil engineering of its era - and this despite the fact that none of the men who planned the route and the locks were professional engineers or government employees. It was truly a marriage of the vision and energy of private citizens with the sponsorship that only a government acting as its incorporated citizenry could provide.

The Erie Canal also gave rise to a subculture of teamsters and boatmen and merchants who quite naturally gloried in their roles in this wondrous achievement and consequently and of course sang about it. There were some great songs - "The E-Ri-E Was A-Rising," "Oh! Dat Low Bridge!," "Raging Canal," and of course, this week's selection, likely the most famous of all, published in 1905 as "Low Bridge, Everybody Down" by Thomas Allen. Allen maintained that he composed the song as a nostalgic tribute to the then-vanished mule teams and drivers who had originally pulled the barges through the canal at fifteen miles a day, replaced eventually by steam cars that could do the job cheaper and faster. But Allen was likely drawing to a degree at least from songs that had actually been sung by the workers themselves - in the best folk tradition, he borrowed and stole and invented and re-arranged until he had a song that was simultaneously all his but with a musical DNA stretching back decades before.

I found it just a tad discouraging that I couldn't find on YouTube or elsewhere a Burl Ives recording or one that sounded really like the version I learned as a child - but this amusing video from theBigFish [sic] comes fairly close:

You can hear Allen's musical sophistication here - the key and tempo shifts, with the melancholy minor-keyed verses resolving gently into the positive, upbeat major chord chorus. This version is a bit too Springsteen-ish for my tastes, but it is the basic song with minimal embellishment.

[Interpolated Edit - May 2012: Eureka! A video of Pete Seeger doing part of the song has been uploaded to YouTube. I wish Seeger had done the whole thing - but at least we can get the idea of how the song should sound:

Now this really amateur home recording from RoseMarama of New Zealand at least has the virtue of solo guitar accompaniment:

I think Rose does a commendable job - at least she performs it like a folk song and really seems to enjoy doing so.

This version from 1958 features Mitch Miller's group on background and the Sandpipers:

The Corndoggers start out promisingly and carry a good boat-man-sounding vocal throughout - but then instrumentally they go all Springsteen on us. Too bad:

I can do without the drums, guys. It's a FOLK song.

Sony-BMG has blocked virtually every video of Bruce Springsteen performing his 2006 Seeger Sessions version of the song, except for an occasional bootleg that manages to pass under the radar, as in this crude cellphone video from a Dublin performance:

I had a mixed reaction to the Boss's Seeger project (much as Pete himself did). Springsteen is a rocker, one of the best that this country has produced. But as we all know, rock is derived primarily from black blues and rhythm and blues traditions. I thought that Springsteen's best efforts on that album were those that tapped into black traditions, spirituals like "Oh Mary Don't You Weep" and "When the Saints Go Marching In." I didn't feel that Euro-Anglo-Irish derived tunes like "Jesse James" or this one worked particularly well at all.

And now for some genuinely different versions - first, the Kingston Trio:

This is one of the last Public Domain numbers attempted by the group. It's a serviceable arrangement - kind of a "generic uptempo folksong" reading that sacrifices the emotional nuances of the original for a kind of good-timey feeling that is more anticipatory of what in 1962 the New Christy Minstrels were about to do with pop folk music than reflective of the more sensitive and often introspective folk arrangements of the original Trio.

Speaking of different - here is a soul arrangement by The Juke Box Band:

The rhythm here is a fascinating melding of reggae with straight-up R&B. Maybe not folk, but a "noble experiment."

Frank Macchia's All Star Jazz Band likewise combines a bit of Dixieland with a more contemporary ex-temp jazz style - a really interesting crossover:

This CD of Machia's is called Folk Songs For Jazzers, and that about says it all. It is a great effort, and if the song is propelled far beyond its folk roots, it's still nice to see kissing cousins jazz and folk getting along so well.

When I was a boy, I loved "The Erie Canal" song's shift into the major key on the chorus, and I sang along lustily. I suppose that now I am a lot older, it is Allen's nostalgia that touches me most deeply. Our boatman's affection for ol' Sal - an anachronism whose time has passed - connects somehow with my wistful memories of a time when folk was folk and an acoustic guitar and/or banjo and a good song like this one was all that you needed to make compelling music that people would connect with and listen to.


Mike said...

As someone who -- you may recall -- was always a better singer than player, and more of a historian and storyteller than musician, my frustration with this song is that someone very influential changed Allen's key lyric from "15 years on the Erie Canal" to "15 miles ..." which they claim is the average shift. I doubt that anyway -- my Irish forebears would have enjoyed getting off that easy -- but it changes the song from a reminiscence of years of service together into a memory of trudging up and down, back and forth on the same stupid path. (And doesn't explain how these two by-their-version hopeless drudges know every inch of the way from Albany to Buffalo.) Of course, the song is more about Sal than anything else, a tribute to an old pal, and the 15 years they've spent together gloriously walking those long banks through city and countryside, sharing their labor and enjoying each other's company.

"15 miles" sounds more like the old Dunkin Donuts lament, "gotta make the donuts."


Jim Moran said...

Hey Pete! Glad you're looking in here on my little ramblings.

Yeah, I learned it originally as "fifteen years" too, and as you say that is far the more poignant lyric. Additionally, at fifteen miles a day only, the 300-plus mile trip would take more than 20 days each way, which would be so taxing not to say costly that you wouldn't be able to make the journey more than a few times each year - not enough to sustain a genuine teamster business.

On the other hand, a barge "filled with coal, lumber and hay" would be no picnic to haul, and our singer and ol' Sal would be drudging and trudging along in any case - probably looking down at all those inches a good deal of the time.

I'm posting your remarks here to the site of the first publication of each of these articles -

- as an expert commentary!

Also enjoying paging through your blog as well.


greenhawk46 said...

I agree this is a lament, a thank you to Sal, not a peppy "let's have fun walking along the river" song-

don't overlook Pete Seeger's version, with that great banjo sound-he too commits the sin of "15, [or 16] miles" instead of
"15 years"-

I was intrigued by the British audience singing along with Bruce Springsteen-who'd have thought that reaction?

Jim H.

greenhawk46 said...

comment continued-

found the "15 year" version of this song on yt:
nicely done too-

actually, I kinda like what Springsteen did with his jazz/folk version-when it's bluesy-but not when it's jazzy, orchestral-