The answer is complex, confusing, American.
Editor's Note: Bruce Watson is a writer, historian, and contributing editor at American Heritage. You can read more of his work on his blog, The Attic.
One morning last fall, I found myself driving along the Miller’s River as it winds through Western Massachusetts. The sun was a pale disc burning through wisps of gauze. Mist rose over the rolling river, soaring above autumnal reds and yellows. Despite my destination – Boston – it suddenly seemed as if I were westbound, crossing the Appalachians, headed for a better country, a country I used to know. Moved by the scenery, I flipped my iPod to my favorite American song. You know it. Above the din of our lives, you can hear it.
Forget, for a moment, all the would-be anthems written before or since. This land may be my land, but it’s come to feel like someone else's. Amber waves of grain are out there somewhere, but lately, dirges have doused my soul. I have not felt at home on the range in years. And as for the dawn’s early light, who among us has seen it lately? But this song…
On that morning, for that moment, the song spanned centuries. And as if bound across the wide Missouri, I drove deeper into a country I knew again. The road took me along the river, into shadowed gorges, above quilts of birch and maple. The chorus swelled and the song ended, only to be played again with the flip of a finger.
I had always loved the song, always teared up. What I love most about “Shenandoah” is that no one knows who wrote it. We don’t know where in America it was written, nor are we certain who or what this Shenandoah is.
This much I knew: Shenandoah is a gorgeous valley in Virginia, but the “wide Missouri” does not flow there. Was the singer bidding farewell, heading west? Perhaps, but early on, another interpretation arises.
So Shenandoah was also a Native-American chief. But the song made scant mention of natives. Written by that greatest of all songwriters, Traditional, the song's aching beauty proved that tradition knows us – knows our longing, our dreams, and how often dreams shift into a minor key.
The road bound me away from the Miller’s River and on toward Boston. On a busy fall morning, fellow Americans zipped past. Some had their own internal music, but none heard a song so lyrical, so lovely, so American as “Shenandoah.”
I listened to the song perhaps 20 times, playing and re-playing all the versions on my iPod – Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, the violin version from Ken Burns’ “Civil War.” I couldn’t stop listening. Later, back home I found one by Arlo Guthrie with a meaning not so dreamlike. The singer loved the chief's daughter, all right, but...
These, I learned, were the original lyrics. Suddenly "Shenandoah" was not about longing but a story of betrayal and taking. Because along comes "a Yankee skipper" who...
So "Shenandoah," my new American anthem, is really about getting Native-Americans drunk and stealing their daughters. This haunting song, still sung by children, started as a celebration of deceit and plunder. Part of me accepted this as the folk tradition, but another part refused. Oh, but it's so lovely. And the lyrics I had known said nothing about drunkenness or stealing daughters. Which "Shenandoah" was I to sing?
Ever since that morning, I have listened again and again to "Shenandoah." I drive now, even in traffic, listening to Arlo's harsh truth but also an inebriated version by Tom Waits, a jazzy, freeform "Shenandoah," an ethereal Irish fiddle rendition, and more. Which is our song, our "Shenandoah?"
The answer is complex, confusing, American. It turns out that all our song, just as this is all our country -- lovely and haunting, savage and selfish, with a past we can cherish -- until we look a little deeper. And even then, we find something that calls to us. For me, “Shenandoah” has become not just a song but a salvation, a balm for all that ails us these days.
As a nation, we share “Shenandoah,” and other songs, traditions, histories. But we have stopped listening to tradition, preferring the shouting, the scandals, the half-truths. Just when we should be singing, we are insulting, accusing, brawling… It should not take an autumn morning or a minor key to suggest better avenues, a better people, and what our best president called “the better angels of our nature.”
In these strange times, a shrill song is stuck in our heads. But once it plays out, we could do no better than to listen to our old songs, songs whose author is unknown, which means we all write them again, each time we sing or listen. Some will sing only the romantic lyrics, others of the plunder. But they are our songs. You know them. Above the din, you can hear them.