The Boatmen’s Dance

February 22, 2015 — 55 Comments

When I found out that I needed to select and perform four folk songs this year as part of my course I knew that I wanted to tackle something new and different. I decided as you know to perform songs from Aaron Copland’s series of American Folk Songs which he composed in the early 1950s.

One of the hardest parts was choosing which four songs to sing, “The Boatmen’s Dance” became the third of my selections and one that I thoroughly enjoyed performing.


The Jolly Boatmen – George Caleb Bingham. Circa 1877.


The original version was credited to Dan Emmett in 1843 and was considered to be a celebration of the lives and exploits of the Ohio River boatmen. As immigration from Europe to the USA soared in the early 1800s the Ohio / Mississippi rivers became busier and busier as one of the primary routes for safe and secure travel for the Europeans searching for a new and better life for their families.

As people travelled down the river they often kept diaries or journals and there are many references to the jovial nature of the boatmen and their expertise on the fiddle.


Boatmen On The River


In an issue of the Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly, called “Folk Music on the Midwestern Frontier 1788-1825’, by Harry R. Stevens, Duke University one traveller (Timothy Flint, 1826) wrote “almost every boat, while it lies in the harbour, has one or more fiddlers scraping continually aboard, to which you often see the boatmen dancing.”

Another observed: “As the boats were laid to for the night in an eddy, a part of the crew could give them headway on starting in the morning, while the others struck up a tune on their fiddles…The boatmen, as a class, were masters of the fiddle, and the music, heard through the distance from these boats, was more sweet and animating than any I have ever heard since. When the boats stopped for the night at or near a settlement, a dance was got up, if possible, which all the boatmen would attend. ”


The Ohio River


The Boatmen’s Dance

High row the boatmen row,
Floatin’ down the river the Ohio.

High row the boatmen row,
Floatin’ down the river the Ohio.

The boatmen dance, the boatmen sing,
The boatmen up to ev’rything,
And when the boatman gets on shore
He spends his cash and works for more.
Then dance the boatmen dance,
O dance the boatmen dance.
O dance all night ’til broad daylight,
And go home with the gals in the mornin’.

High row the boatmen row,
Floatin’ down the river the Ohio.

I went on board the other day
To see what the boatmen had to say.
There I let my passion loose
An’ they cram me in the callaboose.
O dance the boatmen dance,
O dance the boatmen dance.
O dance all night ’til broad daylight,
And go home with the gals in the mornin’.

High row the boatmen row,
Floatin’ down the river the Ohio.

The boatman is a thrifty man,
There’s none can do as the boatman can.
I never see a pretty gal in my life
But that she was a boatman’s wife.
O dance the boatmen dance,
O dance the boatmen dance.
O dance all night ’til broad daylight,
And go home with the gals in the mornin’.

High row the boatmen row,
Floatin’ down the river the Ohio.

High row the boatmen row,
Floatin’ down the river the Ohio.

I hope that you are all singing along with me on these songs


Jessica Hurst and Me


I have been asked along with my best friend Jessica Hurst to perform our folk songs during the judging interval at this year’s Bruce Millar Gulliver singing competition. There will be a surprise for those that can make it, Jess and I will be also be performing a duet but I wonder if you can guess which one ? I will reveal all next week after the event. I am posting a bit earlier than usual tonight because I am going to try and get an early night and a get a good long sleep.

55 responses to The Boatmen’s Dance


    Love this song Charlotte. I listened to it about 10 times yesterday..your photo is lovely too.😚


    +1, I love this song too and definitely beyond my ability to sing along 🙂


    Lovely, Charlotte, and I love the history you give with it. I am a huge Copeland fan, so you are making me happy. It’s so nice to have your lovely voice to listen to.


    Charlotte, I so love this song and you do a wonderful job singing it. Like your dress, too. xxx


    Very nice and interesting Charlotte, thanks a lot !! Have a fantastic week !! 🙂


    A really interesting post. Thanks for introducing me to The Boatmen’s Dance, which was a new one to me.


    Lovely, Charlotte. I would rather listen to you than sing along. Thanks for sharing. xo


    Your voice is exquisite and I totally enjoy your musical posts. Compliments, as well, to the time and effort put into your posts and much appreciation for the posting of lyrics.


    Refreshingly different from your usual repertoire Charlotte! 🙂 It’s amazing how many “Ordinary” people could play musical instruments back than. Of course they didn’t have the massive distractions we have these days! – FB being just one! lol 🙂


      Music in schools in so important for this reason, now some schools don’t have singing assemblies it makes me sad that these old folk songs won’t get their usual hearing. I don’t spend much time on Facebook don’t have enough spare 😀.
      Best wishes


    I tried singing with you but fell out pretty quickly. Would be like kicking the ball with Pele. Loved the boatman song.

    Annette Rochelle Aben February 22, 2015 at 10:56 pm

    Awesome! I worked and lived in Ohio for about 20 years… great place, great song and a super rendition. Brava!


    You’ve chosen well with Copland, and you sing this song beautifully. You might be interested to know that one of the Ohio boatman at that time was a future American president, the young Abraham Lincoln. I don’t think he had skills, music-wise, though. 😉


    Oo I like this one Missy H – yer bee a talented lass me thinks 😀


    Beautifully sung! Another song with change of tempo. I like the background to the song too – well researched, Charlotte! Charles Dickens travelled to Canada and America in 1842 and went down the R Ohio on a steam ship. His descriptions of what he saw are very good but he was very fastidious and he didn’t like having to share washing facilities! He was very standoffish and couldn’t understand the friendliness of the Americans either.


    I love this song! I’m trying to keep up with you and sing along but hey ??? Maybe not 😀 beautiful. Xx


    Beautifully sung. Fanfare for the Uncommon Girl.

    Barbara Paterson February 23, 2015 at 8:57 pm

    That was great what a voice


    Really loved this one!


    Of course I sang along…just many octaves lower and occasionally straining my poor vocal cords!

    PASTOR DAVIS/MASTER TEACHER February 25, 2015 at 5:06 pm

    Truly, truly beautiful works of art, thank you so very much for sharing, and thank you also for following the work we are doing here at the VABWM. Please click this link and receive my personal welcome message.


    This is the song I have been waiting for ~ and it did not disappoint…in fact you exceeded expectations. An incredible pace and clarity with your voice, beautiful work Charlotte!


    Beautiful song, thank you for giving it to us. Looking forward to reading more! Cheers. Adrián


    Jessica Hurst and Me – This is a cool photo with smiles


    Beautiful! And so fascinating!


    Found this page while searching for the lyrics to The Boatmen’s Dance. Listened to your beautiful version and it literally brought tears to my eyes, thank you Charlotte. Am an old man now, but grew up within the sound of the Ohio riverboats, had two uncles who worked all their lives on those boats. Thank you for bringing back memories of a place very dear to me.

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