This popular American folk song goes back to the American and Canadian fur traders, called the voyageurs (from the French meaning “travelers”), who traded otter, beaver, lynx, and mink furs with First Nations peoples and transported their merchandise along the great North American rivers and lakes crossing indigenous lands.
It was dangerous and skillful work to maneuver the large canoes over long distances and along perilous waters. Music and song were part of their long journeys.
The origin of the song is not known but likely dates back to the early 19th century. There are a number of interpretations of what the lyrics refer to, the most popular and oldest versions telling the story of how a fur trader falls in love with the daughter of the great Oneida chief Shenandoah. Being a sailors’ and bosuns’ song, however, the song and its text morphed through the centuries to also sometimes refer to the Shenandoah River or the Missouri River.
Our Music of the Week version is wonderfully presented by the Norwegian soprano and crossover singer Sissel Kyrkjebø, who, among many other collaborations, has sung with the famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Oh Shenandoah on Wikipedia