Rivers of Melody

How Rivers Made America and Americans Made Music


Perhaps no other feature of the American landscape figures so prominently in popular song as its rivers. Collectively, American river songs not only serve as a compendium of American history and folklore, but as a continuously developing account of American popular music. From the earliest days of the republic, through the 19th century and into the 20th, various occupational groups inspired a wide variety of songs dealing with the pleasures, as well as the dangers and labor-related aspects of life on the river.
America has more than 250,000 rivers – over 3 million miles – dissecting the fields, cities, and forests of the nation. These aren’t just any rivers; these are world-class rivers. The Mississippi watershed alone drains the rain and snow that falls on over a million square miles, generating 390 billion gallons of water per day.

Rivers have shaped the basic facts of America. Many state borders were set by rivers. The Rio Grande separates the United States from Mexico. Sixteen states were named after rivers, along with over 150 counties. Rivers have also shaped where we live.

When colonists arrived on the Eastern shores of America, they established their farms and settlements in the coastal plain, where the land was flat and the rivers, streams, and sloughs were easily plied. As time went on, and more settlers arrived, people moved farther inland. There, they were confronted by the Fall Line, where the Atlantic coastal plain runs up against the Piedmont.

Upstream of the Fall Line, rivers run through narrow, steep-walled valleys interspersed with rapids. Downstream on the coastal plain, the rivers are easily traveled. For anyone to move a bale of cotton or a bushel of wheat from the interior by boat, the Fall Line would mark the end of the line. There, canoes moving downstream would have to be unloaded, portaged around the obstacle, and reloaded. To move goods upstream from the Atlantic, cargo would have to be shifted from larger coastal or ocean-going vessels to land transportation, canoes, or rafts to transport beyond the Fall Line.

The Old Fall Line
Music by Harry VonTilzer
Words by William Jerome & Andrew B. Sterling
Published 1913

The Fall River in the title of this song refers to the town of Fall River, Massachusetts, which was originally settled in 1653 as Freetown.  In 1803, Fall River separated from Freetown and was officially incorporated
"The Fall River Line was a combination steamboat and railroad connection between New York City and Boston that operated between 1847 and 1937. It consisted of a railroad journey between Boston and Fall River, Massachusetts, where passengers would then board steamboats for the journey through Narragansett Bay and Long Island Sound to the line's own Hudson River dock in Manhattan. For many years, it was the preferred route to take for travel between the two major cities. The line was extremely popular, and its steamboats were some of the most advanced and luxurious of their day".(Wikipedia) Listen to the midi version of the song, or view and play the score using the Scorch player. Read the lyrics

At the Fall Line ports of the 18th century, villages and towns began forming and growing. These otherwise random places at the intersection of rivers and the Fall Line became natural places for people to settle and for towns to grow – Richmond on the James, Washington on the Potomac, Trenton on the Delaware, and nearly all of the other major cities of the eastern U.S.

But, cities of the Midwest, the Deep South, and the Far West are much the same. Many cities lie at the junction of important rivers – Pittsburgh, where the Monongahela and Allegheny join to form the Ohio; Kansas City at the junction of the Missouri and Kansas rivers; and Sacramento at the Sacramento and American rivers. Cities of the Deep

South are typically situated to avoid water, or at least floods. Memphis, Vicksburg, and Natchez all sit upon a bluff overlooking the Mississippi. They’re at a safe elevation, yet close enough to the river to be bustling ports for 19th century steamboats and 21st century barge tows.

Where rivers are constricted to narrow valleys and canyons, or where they cascade over waterfalls, their physical power has been harnessed through evolving technology. Settlers of the 18th and 19th centuries built their villages around small dams which powered waterwheels. 20th century engineers built massive concrete dams and turbines to generate power that would be sent through an ever-growing electric grid to distant cities.

Rivers have also shaped the very ideas of what America should be. Which level of government should regulate commerce? River-borne commerce on interstate rivers drove the new republic to have a single, national economy rather than a collection of independent state economies. How big should the nation be? The Louisiana Purchase changed the geography of America. Acquiring the entire Missouri River basin added a vast western empire and it became “manifest destiny” to explore and settle it.

As author Martin Doyle explains in his book The Source, “just as European powers had competed to cross the barrier of the Atlantic quickest and most efficiently to establish the hub of commerce, a geographic competition between those based along the Potomac, the Hudson, and the Mississippi was under way for access to the Ohio River.”(1) Thomas Jefferson realized that the links (rivers) to the western country was key to commercial expansion of the new republic. He said that “there would be a rivalship between the Hudson [in the North] and the Potomac [in the South] for the residue of the commerce of all the country westward of Lake Erie.”(2)

But, in 1784 the United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation, with each state functioning independently. The Potomac forms part of the border between Maryland and Virginia. Getting Congress to come to an agreement between those states for work on an interstate river would be like establishing a treaty between the United States and Mexico over the Rio Grande.

In 1785, delegates from those states met at George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon. There, they worked out an arrangement, the Mount Vernon Compact, for commerce on the river. James Madison of Virginia suggested another meeting on interstate commerce and inviting representatives from all the states. In September 1786, that conference was held in Annapolis, MD. It was soon realized that the Articles of Confederation imposed numerous obstacles to any agreement, not the least of which was that everything had to be agreed upon unanimously. Given the rivalry between North and South, even at this early date, unanimity was almost impossible.

Madison and the other delegates decided on still another meeting, in Philadelphia in 1787. While interstate commerce was its initial purpose, this final meeting ultimately
resulted in our present Constitution. So, rivers can be said to have been so important that the very founding of the United States was the result.

On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away
Words and Music by Paul Dresser
Published 1897

"The Wabash River is a 503-mile-long  river in the Midwestern United States that flows southwest from near the Indiana border in northwest Ohio, across northern and central Indiana to southern Illinois, where it forms the Illinois-Indiana border before draining into the Ohio River, of which it is the largest northern tributary. From the dam near Huntington, Indiana, to its terminus at the Ohio River, the Wabash flows freely for 411 miles (661 km). Its watershed drains most of Indiana.
The Wabash is the state river of Indiana, and subject of the state song "On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away" by Paul Dresser. Two counties (in Indiana and Illinois), eight townships in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio; one Illinois precinct, one city, one town, two colleges, one high school, one canal, one former class I railroad, several bridges and avenues are all named for the river itself while four US Navy warships are either named for the river or the numerous battles that took place on or near it." (Wikipedia) Listen to this song's midi version, or see the score and follow it using the Scorch player, and read the lyrics.


Beautiful Ohio
Words and Music by Mary Earl
Published 1918

The Ohio River, which streams westward from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Cairo, Illinois, is the largest tributary, by volume, of the Mississippi River. At the confluence, the Ohio is considerably bigger than the Mississippi and is hydrologically the main stream of the whole river system.
The 981-mile (1,579 km) river flows through or along the border of six states, and its drainage basin includes parts of 15 states. Through its largest tributary, the Tennessee River, the basin includes many of the states of the southeastern U.S. It is the source of drinking water for (more than) three million people.
The name "Ohio" comes from the Seneca Indian, Ohi:yo',"Good River". The river had great significance in the history of the Native Americans, as numerous civilizations formed along its valley. For thousands of years, Native Americans used the river as a major transportation and trading route. (Wikipedia) Listen to the midi, view and follow the score and/or read the lyrics.

Bless My Swanee River Home
Words by Sam M. Lewis & Joe Young
Music by Walter Donaldson
Published 1919

The Suwannee River (also spelled Suwanee River) is a major river that runs through South Georgia southward into Florida in the southern United States. It is a wild blackwater river, about 246 miles long. The Suwannee River is the site of the prehistoric Suwanee Straits which separated peninsular Florida from the panhandle.
This river is the subject of the Stephen Foster song "Old Folks at Home", in which he calls it the Swanee Ribber. Foster had named the Pedee River of South Carolina in his first lyrics. It has been called Swanee River because Foster had used an alternative contemporary spelling of the name.(see below for more on "Swanee Ribber).
George Gershwin's song, made popular by Al Jolson, is also spelled "Swanee" and boasts that "the folks up North will see me no more when I get to that Swanee shore". Both of these songs feature banjo-strumming and reminiscences of a plantation life more typical of 19th-century South Carolina than of among the swamps and small farms in the coastal plain of south Georgia and north Florida. (Wikipedia) Listen to the midi, view and follow the score and/or read the lyrics.

Old Folks at Home
Words and Music by Stephen C. Foster
Published 1831

"Old Folks at Home" (also known as "Swanee River", "Swanee Ribber" [from the original lyrics], or "Suwannee River") is a minstrel song written by Stephen Foster in 1851. Since 1935 it has been the official state song of Florida, although in 2008 the original lyrics were changed due to political correctness concerns.
According to Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954 (1986), "Old Folks at Home" was the best-selling sheet music song of the period, with over twenty million copies sold. "Old Folks at Home" in print was credited to E. P. Christy on early sheet music printings. Christy had paid Foster to be credited, which Foster himself had suggested but later came to regret Foster had composed most of the lyrics but was struggling to name the river of the opening line, and asked his brother to suggest one. The first suggestion was "Yazoo" (in Mississippi), which despite fitting the melody perfectly, was rejected by Foster. The second suggestion was "Pee Dee" (in South Carolina), to which Foster said, "Oh pshaw! I won't have that." His brother then consulted an atlas and called out "Suwannee!" Foster said, "That's it, exactly!" Adding it to the lyrics, he purposely misspelled it as "Swanee" to fit the melody. Foster himself never saw the Suwannee—or even visited Florida—but the popularity of the song stimulated tourism to Florida, to see the river. (Wikipedia) Listen to the midi, follow and view the score and/or see the lyrics

Taking a Trip Up the Hudson
Words and Music by James Thornton
Published 1902

The Hudson River is a 315-mile river that flows from north to south primarily through eastern New York in the United States. The river originates in the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York, flows southward through the Hudson Valley, and eventually drains into the Atlantic Ocean at New York Harbor, between New York City and Jersey City. The river serves as a political boundary between the states of New Jersey and New York at its southern end. Further north, it marks local boundaries between several New York counties.
The river is named after Henry Hudson, an Englishman sailing for the Dutch East India Company, who explored it in 1609, and after whom Hudson Bay in Canada is also named. (Wikipedia) Listen to the midi, view and follow the score and/or read the lyrics.


When It's Moonlight on the Mississippi
Words by Billy Vanderveer
Music by Arthur Lange
Published 1915

The Mississippi River is the chief river of the second-largest drainage system on the North American continent, second only to the Hudson Bay drainage system. The stream is entirely within the United States, its source is Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota and it flows generally south for 2,320 miles to the Mississippi River Delta in the Gulf of Mexico. With its many tributaries, the Mississippi's watershed drains all or parts of 31 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces between the Rocky and Appalachian Mountains. The Mississippi ranks as the fourth-longest and fifteenth-largest river in the world by discharge. The river either borders or passes through 10 of the U. S. states
Native Americans long lived along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. The arrival of Europeans in the 16th century changed the native way of life as first explorers, then settlers, ventured into the basin in increasing numbers. The river served first as a barrier, forming borders for New Spain, New France, and the early United States, and then as a vital transportation artery and communications link. (Wikipedia).Listen to the midi, view the score and/or read the lyrics.


Roll On, Missouri
Words by Ballard MacDonald
Music by Harry Carroll
Published 1913

The Missouri River is the longest river in North America. Rising in the Rocky Mountains of western Montana, the Missouri flows east and south for 2,341 miles before entering the Mississippi River north of St. Louis, Missouri. The river takes drainage from a  watershed of more than half a million square miles, which includes parts of ten U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. When combined with the lower Mississippi River, it forms the world's fourth longest river system.
For over 12,000 years, people have depended on the Missouri River and its tributaries as a source of sustenance and transportation. More than ten major groups of Native Americans populated the watershed. The first Europeans encountered the river in the late seventeenth century, and the region passed through Spanish and French hands before finally becoming part of the United States through the Louisiana Purchase. The Missouri was long believed to be part of the Northwest Passage – a water route from the Atlantic to the Pacific – but when Lewis and Clark became the first to travel the river's entire length, they confirmed the mythical pathway to be no more than a legend. (Wikipedia) Listen to the midi, view and follow the score and/or read the lyrics.



All Quiet Along the Potomac To-Night
Words by Lamar Fontaine
Music by J. H. Hewitt
Published 1862

The Potomac River  is located within the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States and flows from the Potomac Highlands into the Chesapeake Bay. The river (main stem and North Branch) is approximately 405 miles with a drainage area of about 14,700 square miles. In terms of area, this makes the Potomac River the fourth largest river along the Atlantic coast of the United States and the 21st largest in the United States. Over 5 million people live within the Potomac watershed.
The river forms part of the borders between Maryland and Washington, D.C.,
Originally a poem by Ethel Lynn Beers, it was first published as "The Picket Guard" in the Harper's Weekly issue dated November 30, 1861, attributed only to "E.B."  It was then reprinted broadly, both with that attribution and without, leading to many spurious claims of authorship.  On July 4, 1863, Harper's Weekly told its readers that the poem had been written for the paper by a lady contributor whom it later identified as Beers.  The poem was based on newspaper reports of "all is quiet tonight", which was based on official telegrams sent to the Secretary of War by Major-General George B. McClellan, following the First Battle of Bull Run. Beers noticed that  the report was followed by a small item telling of a picket being killed. She wrote the poem that same morning.  In 1863, the poem was set to music by John Hill Hewitt, himself a poet, newspaperman, and musician, who was serving in the Confederate Army.  This song may have inspired the title of the English translation of Erich Maria Remarque's World War I novel All Quiet on the Western Front. Listen to the midi, view and follow the score and/or read the lyrics.


Red River Valley
Words and Music by Unknown
Published circa 1870-90

Though this song may most often be considered a "country western" song and expectations may be that the Red River Valley was somewhere in the old west, in actuality the Red River Valley is a region in central North America that is drained by the Red River of the North; it is part of both Canada and the United States.
The Red River of the North originates at the confluence of the Bois de Sioux and Otter Tail rivers between the U.S. states of Minnesota and North Dakota, it flows northward through the Red River Valley, forming most of the border of Minnesota and North Dakota and continuing into Manitoba, Canada. It empties into Lake Winnipeg, whose waters join the Nelson River and ultimately flow into the Hudson Bay. Edith Fowke offers anecdotal evidence that the song was known in at least five Canadian provinces before 1896.This finding led to speculation that the song was composed at the time of the 1870 Wolseley Expedition to Manitoba's northern Red River Valley. It expresses the sorrow of a local woman as her soldier lover prepares to return to the east. In 1925, Carl T. Sprague, an early singing cowboy from Texas, recorded it as "Cowboy Love Song" , but it was fellow Texan Jules Verne Allen's 1929 "Cowboy's Love Song", that gave the song its greatest popularity. .Members of the Western Writers of America chose it as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time, ranked #10. Listen to the midi, view and follow the score and/or read the lyrics.


(Across the wide Missouri)
Unknown Composer/Lyricist
Published 19th Century

"Oh Shenandoah" is a traditional American folk song of uncertain origin, dating to the early 19th century.The song appears to have originated with Canadian and American explorers or fur traders traveling down the Missouri River in canoes, and has developed several different sets of lyrics. The lyrics may refer to the Oneida chief Shenandoah and a canoe-going trader who wants to marry his daughter. The second verse lyrics reinforce that possibility. Since a main theme is the Missouri river, the references to the Shenandoah Valley become somewhat questionable. Though for many, the song could refer to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. In fact,in 2006 the state of Virginia once considered the song to be the state song. The proposal was contentious because the standard folk song refers to the Missouri River, and in most versions of the song the name "Shenandoah" refers to an Indian chief, not the Shenandoah Valley or Shenandoah River which lie almost entirely in Virginia. It is not surprising that many would like to claim the song as even though it is a short and simple melody, it is unquestionably one of the most beautiful melodies to come out of the folk song genre. By the mid 1800s versions of the song had become a sea shanty heard or sung by sailors in various parts of the world. Listen to the midi version, view and follow the score and/or read the lyrics.

(1) Doyle, Martin, The Source – How Rivers Made America and America Remade Its Rivers, (W.W. Norton & Co, New York-2018), p. 18
(2) Jefferson to Washington, 15 March 1784, in Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress American Memory web site, https://memory.loc.gov/
Shenandoah – Traditional
(Composer Unknown)


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