There are some place names that seem somehow to connote great beauty tinged by terrible sadness. Shiloh, which sounds like a First Nations name, but was actually an ancient Samarian town mentioned in the Bible, has always struck me that way, maybe because a place named Shiloh was the site of one of the most terrible battles of the American Civil War. Shenandoah, the name given eventually to a valley in Virginia that cuts through the Blue Ridge Mountains, is another with a cadence that seems naturally to lend itself to a sad and plaintive song. Some scholars trace the curiously evocative word back to the Algonquian schind-han-do-wi, variously translated to mean “spruce stream,” “great plains,” or even “beautiful daughter of the stars.” Others think it’s a derivation of the name of Oneida Iroquois chief John Skenandotoa. Some insist that the real name of the song has nothing to do with indigenous peoples, and should be “Shanandore”, or even “Across the Wide Missouri”, but “Shenandoah” is the consensus title of this mournful American classic, performed here in two versions, one by the inestimable Emmylou Harris, and one by Norwegian sensation Sissel Kyrkjebø.
Nobody knows who wrote Shenandoah. The first transcribed version appeared in the late 1870s, but by then it was already an old, old folk song that had served as a lament sung by loggers, and, unexpectedly, as an old sea shanty, a “capstan song”, sung by sailors as they hauled up their ships’ anchors. It’s thought that it may have originated with 18th Century fur traders who penetrated deep into the hinterland following rivers like the Missouri. Along the way they would have encountered the members of many of the First Nations tribes that once flourished in the lands where the trapping was good, and some, no doubt, had their hearts stolen by young indigenous women whose exotic beauty must have seemed otherworldly compared to the belles in whatever towns they hailed from. That’s what the original version of the song is about, in which “Shenandoah” is not a place, but the name of a tribal chief; the narrator has fallen hard for his daughter. As it wended its way through history, it became a “leaving song”, a sort of anthem for those, like loggers and sailors, who have to travel far from the comforts of a longed-for home to ply their difficult trades.
To my ears, anyway, no melody gracing any composition of popular or classical music is more sublime than this one. Some songs, like Streets of Laredo and St. James Infirmary, are so much a part of the American consciousness that their influence is incalculable, and likewise many a modern lament can trace its DNA back to Shenandoah. It’s been covered by a host of artists, male and female, over the years, including not only those performing in the attached clips, but Arlo Guthrie, Glen Campbell, Jane Siberry, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Van Morrison, just about every choir you could name, and even (or perhaps “of course”?) Bruce Springsteen.
In Sissel’s take it sounds almost Celtic, doesn’t it? I bet it was well known to James Horner, who composed the music for Titanic, and I’d wager that a lot of my favourite songwriters know it by heart.