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Origins: Michael, Row the Boat Shore

The Ford of River Jordan, postcard.

Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah,
Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah,
Sister help to trim the sail, hallelujah,
Sister help to trim the sail, hallelujah.

Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah,
Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah,
Jordan’s river is chilly and cold, hallelujah,
Chills the body but not the soul, hallelujah.

Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah,
Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah,
The river is deep and the river is wide, hallelujah,
Milk and honey on the other side, hallelujah.

Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah,
Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah.

Often sung as a lullaby, ‘Michael Row the Boat Ashore’ originates in the colonies of the New World, were it was recorded with 42 others at the slave port island of St Helena. The collected songs were published  in Slave Songs of the United States in 1867.

Almost a century later, folk band The Highwaymen took the song (under the title ‘Michael’) to a number one in October 1961 on both sides of the Atlantic.

The song, a Spiritual, is addressed to the Saint Michael the Archangel, the Angel of Death. The meaning of the song is more explicit in the first collected version (spelling is original):

Michael row de boat ashore, Hallelujah!
[or Michael boat a gospel boat, Hallelujah!]
I wonder where my mudder deh there.
See my mudder on de rock gwine home.
On de rock gwine home in Jesus’ name.
Michael boat a music boat.
Gabriel blow de trumpet horn.
O you mind your boastin’ talk.
Boastin’ talk will sink your soul.
Brudder, lend a helpin’ hand.
Sister, help for trim dat boat.
Jordan stream is wide and deep.
Jesus stand on t’ oder side.
I wonder if my maussa deh.
My fader gone to unknown land.
O de Lord he plant his garden deh.
He raise de fruit for you to eat.
He dat eat shall neber die.
When de riber overflow.
O poor sinner, how you land?
Riber run and darkness comin’.
Sinner row to save your soul.
Michael haul the boat ashore.
Then you’ll hear the horn they blow.
Then you’ll hear the trumpet sound.
Trumpet sound the world around.
Trumpet sound for rich and poor.
Trumpet sound the jubilee.
Trumpet sound for you and me.

The lyric describes the simple crossing of the River Jordan with macabre undertones provided by reference to trumpets, eternal life and unknown lands. Despite its deathly connotations the song is affirming, a celebration of faith under oppression.

There are numerous versions of the lyric, and no one should be considered definitive. The versions that made themselves at home in 1960s and 70s folk repertoire thanks to Pete Seeger tended to trim the song to a brief river-crossing narrative, and these are the most commonly heard versions today. Pete Seeger had been playing the song since at least the mid-1950s when he included it on his album Children’s Concert at Town Hall in 1963, suggesting that the song has been aimed at children throughout its modern incarnation.

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