Why, one has to wonder, did Lou Reed record himself doing “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” sometime in 1963 or 1964? Maybe he was applying for a job as a camp counselor, I dunno. In any case I set out to educate myself about this song, which I associate with campfires and “Kumbaya.” Turns out there’s more to it than that.1Wikipedia sez:
“Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” (also called “Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore,” “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore,” or “Michael, Row That Gospel Boat”) is a traditional African-American spiritual first noted during the American Civil War at St. Helena Island, one of the Sea Islands of South Carolina. The best-known recording was released in 1960 by the U.S. folk band The Highwaymen; that version briefly reached number-one hit status as a single.
It was sung by former slaves whose owners had abandoned the island before the Union navy arrived to enforce a blockade. Charles Pickard Ware was an abolitionist and Harvard graduate who had come to supervise the plantations on St. Helena Island from 1862 to 1865, and he wrote down the song in music notation as he heard the freedmen sing it. Ware’s cousin William Francis Allen reported in 1863 that the former slaves sang the song as they rowed him in a boat across Station Creek.
The song was first published in 1867 in Slave Songs of the United States by Allen, Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison. Folk musician and educator Tony Saletan rediscovered it in 1954 in a library copy of that book. The song is cataloged as Roud Folk Song Index No. 11975.
Interesting that it’s is actually a spiritual when the best-known versions are, to put it politely, extremely Caucasian. The Highwaymen’s version is pretty heavy on the mayo:
Ditto Pete Seeger, the Smothers Brothers, and Peter, Paul & Mary. (It is from this lineage that Lou Reed’s version is descended. It’s possible he know of the song’s real origins, but I doubt it.) If you scroll down the YouTube results the first nonwhite faces you see will be these three:
The next will belong to Raffi, who is Canadian but of Armenian descent. You have to go down quite a ways before you finally get to Joe and Eddie’s version… which is pretty fucking great.
There’s also a Harry Belafonte performance (also from the Ed Sullivan Show), which is lovely if a bit tepid. But if you add the word “gospel” to the search, the first result is this:
To which I say Amen! Happy Sunday, everybody.
I didn’t realize Lou could play guitar so well. It keeps surprising me. That picking style really reminds me of Robert Johnson.
Great post, Bill.
My first thought is that he was practicing the finger-picking pattern, started singing it off the cuff, realized it sounded dumb and then stopped.
…So he decided to write his own folk song about Jesus.