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"Michael Row the Boat Ashore" - Traditional

History of an American folk song


History of "Michael Row the Boat Ashore"

"Michael Row the Boat Ashore" is an old American folk song that hails from the slave era, and became a popular anthem during the civil rights movement. Its existence was first noted in the early 1860s, although the song itself is probably much older. The song was noted in letters between teachers and abolitionists, who heard it while on St. Helena Island in South Carolina.

"Michael Row the Boat Ashore" Lyrics

Most people nowadays probably only know the refrain from this traditional song, which repeats "Michael row the boat ashore, Hallelujah" twice. The full song, however, talks about crossing the River Jordan, and Michael is the archangel Michael. While there are many versions of the song—due to the fact that it was passed down orally for a long time before being recorded—the lyrics basically talk about finding God and one's family on the other side of the river in the promised land:

O the Lord he plant his garden there.
He raise the fruit for you to eat.
He that eat shall never die.
When the river overflow.

Pete Seeger has noted that, since the song was found in the islands off South Carolina, it may be indicative of a work song that the slaves sung as they were rowing to the mainland. In the more mainstream version recorded by Seeger (purchase/download), he sings also of the familial calls of the song:

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

Who has recorded "Michael Row the Boat Ashore"?

Several popular versions of "Michael Row the Boat Ashore" have been recorded through the years. In addition to Pete Seeger's version, the song has also been recorded by Harry Belafonte (purchase/download), Peter, Paul and Mary (purchase/download) and the Nields (purchase/download).
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