Living History & Reenactment Music

Musical Rambles Through History © by Sara L. Johnson

The Ohio Boatmen

For early music in the Ohio Valley, I found a very helpful little booklet ( in the Cincinnati Public Library), published by the Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly, called "Folk Music on the Midwestern Frontier 1788-1825, by Harry R. Stevens, Duke University. After 1815, westward immigrants began pouring through Cincinnati, and Mr. Stevens found a number of interesting references to the life along the Ohio River, the travellers along it, and the boatmen.

One traveler (Timothy Flint, 1826) said "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. "

John Melish, in Travels in the United States of America, 1812, told of visiting Thomas Kennedy, a Cincinnati ferryman: "Before we had finished our breakfast, Mr. Kennedy drew a fiddle from a box and struck up Rothemurchie's Rant. He played in the true Highland style and I could not stop to finish my breakfast, but started up and danced Shantrews." (I suspect this is a phonetic spelling of Seann Triubhas, a Highland dance still performed in Scottish dancing competitions.)

Thomas Ashe, visiting from England, wrote in Travels in America Performed in the Year 1806 of an inn he visited across the Ohio River (Cincinnati has always like to keep the wild living handily available on the other side of the river):

"I entered the ball-room, which was filled with persons at cards, drinking, smoking, dancing, &c. The music consisted of two bangies (banjos), played by negroes nearly in a state of nudity, and a lute (flute??). through which a Chickasaw breathed with much occasional exertion and violent gesticulations. The dancing accorded with the harmony of these instruments. The clamour of the card tables was so great, that it almost drowned every other; and the music of Ethiopa was with difficulty heard."

A minstrel tune, from a little later period, expressed it well:

The Boatsman dance, the Boatsman sing, the Boatsman do most everything.
And when the Boatsman get on shore, spends all his money and he work for more.

Dance, Boatsman, Dance. Sing Boatsman, sing.
Stay out all night 'til the broad daylight, Coming home with the girls in the morning.
Hey, ho, the Boatmen row, sail down the river on the Ohio,
Hey, ho, the Boatmen row, sail down the river on the Ohio.

Well, I never saw a pretty girl in my life, but what she'd been some boatsman's wife.
When the Boatsman blows his horn, Look out, men, your daughter's gone!