Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Meaning of the Song "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore"

When I lived on Faculty Lane in the early 1960s, folk music was popular in the USA. We Lutherans especially liked folk songs with a Christian component, such as "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore".
Michael, row the boat ashore -- Hallelujah!
 Sister, help to trim the sail -- Hallelujah!
 The river is deep, and the river is wide.
Green pastures on the other side.
Jordan's river is chilly and cold.
Chills the body but not the soul.
The river is deep and the river is wide.
Milk and honey on the other side.
I especially liked the song because my own name is Michael.

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The song was arranged by Dave Fisher, the leader of the folk-music quintet called The Highwaymen, The quintet was formed in 1958, when Fisher and the other four singers were freshman at Wesleyan College, a Methodist all-male college in Middletown, Connecticut.

Dave Fisher as a student
at Wesleyan College
The group soon became popular at Wesleyan and then began performing at other colleges in the region. During the summer between their freshman and sophomore years, the group performed on a cruise ship. In December 1959 the group was signed to a contract by United Artists and began recording its first album.

The Highwaymen
Fisher selected and arranged all the group's songs. He explained: “I would find songs in my own record collection, in books, and from other singers. Also two of the members were from Latin America, and they contributed some great South American and Mexican tunes.” The band relied mostly on guitars and banjos, but also played a variety of instruments, including bongo drums, recorders, and a Bolivian Charango (a ten-stringed instrument made from the back of an armadillo).

The song "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" had been recorded by a folksinger named Bob Gibson in 1957 but the song still was unknown to the public when Fisher included it in the Highwaymen's repertoire. Fisher also gave the song a significantly new arrangement. One of the group's members, Steve Trott, explained:
Dave Fisher's the guy who arranged the biggest folk hit of all time, "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore". He was a musical genius who knew opera, classical, folk music and every other kind of music like the back of his hand. He was able to put it all together and meld it into the Highwaymen sound. He put a couple of minor cords into it that hadn't been there before, and that made all the difference. 
The United Artists producers who initially managed the Highwaymen insisted that the song "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" be included in the first album. Fisher himself did not appreciate the song much, considering it to be a "filler song" for longer concerts. The song was placed in the middle of the album's B side.

The album languished in record stores through the group's junior year of college but then began to spread in popularity, mostly because of the Michael song. During the summer between their junior and senior years, the song rose to the top of the Variety, Cashbox, and Billboard charts, spending three weeks as the Number 1 song on the Billboard chart during August 1961. When the album was re-released, the cover highlighted the Michael song.


The album's song can be heard in the YouTube video below.


The five students continued to attend their senior-year classes at Wesleyan, but performed in concerts all over the country on their weekends. They appeared on the Ed Sullivan and Hootenany television shows.

After the students graduated in June 1962, they performed and recorded full-time, until they broke up in 1964. By that time they had recorded eight albums.

One other of their songs, from their second album, was a big hit, reaching Number 13 on the Billboard chart. This song was called "Cotton Fields", and it began like this:
When I was a little-bitty baby,
My mama would rock me in the cradle,
In them old cotton fields back home.  
Oh, when them cotton balls get rotten
You can't pick very much cotton
In them old cotton fields back home. 
 It was down in Louisiana
Just about a mile from Texarkana,
In them old cotton fields back home. 
It may sound a little funny,
But you didn't make very much money
In them old cotton fields back home.
You can see the Highwaymen perform "Cotton Fields" on an old television show in the YouTube video below.



These two songs caught an early wave of the public's growing interest in the Civil Rights Movement in the former slave states. The songs evoked images of African Americans laboring in physically demanding, poor-paying jobs. These images attracted broader sympathy in the White public than the images evoked generally by blues or rhythm-and-blues songs.

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After the Highwaymen made "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" popular, it was recorded successfully also by Harry Belafonte in 1962, by Pete Seeger in 1963, and by Trini Lopez and by the Smothers Brothers in 1964 -- and by many other folk musicians. The song has become a classic of American folk music and is familiar to practically everyone who has grown up in the USA.

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The song "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" apparently originated and developed on St Helena Island, which is a 64-square-mile area just off the coast from Beaufort, South Carolina. This area now is connected with the mainland by bridges, but during the slavery period it was a sea island. A major military fort called Fort Freemont was located on the island. The island was populated mostly by slaves, who worked on plantations that grew rice, indigo, cotton and spices. The slaves had a distinct culture that is called Gullah, which preserved many African words and customs.

Soon after the Civil War began, the Union navy captured Fort Freemont and then all of St Helena Island at the end of 1861. The White plantation owners fled, and a northern abolitionist, Charles Pickard Ware, was assigned to administer the island. He was a Harvard graduate who collected folk songs, and while he held this administrative position, during the years 1862-1865, he wrote down many songs that he heard the former slaves sing. After the Civil War, in 1867, he published a book titled Slave Songs of the United States. The song "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" was included in the book, and its words were written down by Ware in 1863 from the singing of former slaves as they were rowing a boat between the island and the mainland.

There were two versions of the song:
Michael, row the boat ashore -- Hallelujah!
The Michael boat is a gospel boat -- Hallelujah! 
I wonder where my mother's there.
See my mother on the rock, going home. 
On the rock, going home in Jesus' name. 
The Michael boat is a music boat.
Gabriel, blow the trumpet horn. 
Oh, you mind your boasting talk.
Boasting talk will sink your soul. 
Brother, lend a helping hand.
Sister, help to trim that boat. 
Jordan Stream is wide and deep.
Jesus stands on the other side. 
I wonder if my master's there.
My father's gone to an unknown land. 
Oh, the Lord, he plants his garden there.
He raises the fruit for you to eat. 
He that eats shall never die. 
When the river overflows.
Oh, poor sinner, how'll you land? 
 The river runs, And darkness comes.
Sinner, row to save your soul.
 ... and ...
Michel, row the boat ashore -- Hallelujah!
Then you'll hear the trumpet blow -- Hallelujah! 
Then you'll hear the trumpet sound.
Trumpet, sound the world around. 
Trumpet, sound the jubilee.
Trumpet, sound for you and me.
I have modernized the two songs' pronunciation, spelling and grammar. Ware's book transcribed the songs as they sounded in the African-Americans' dialect. For example, Ware's transcription of several lines looked like this:
I wonder where my mudder deh.
See my mudder on de rock gwine home. .... 
I wonder if my maussa deh.
My fader gone to unknown land.
O de Lord he plant his garden deh.
He raise de fruit for you to eat.
He dat eat shall neber die.
When de riber overflow.
The original song probably had a melody, rhythm and tempo that was different than the Highwaymen song has. In his book's introduction, Ware described the rowing songs as follows:
As I have written these tunes, two measures are to be sung to each stroke, the first measure being accented by the beginning of the stroke, the second by the rattle of the oars in the row-locks. 
On the passenger boat at the [Beaufort] ferry, they rowed from sixteen to thirty strokes a minute; twenty-four was the average. Of the tunes I have heard, I should say that the most lively were 'Heaven bell a-ring' (No. 27), 'Jine 'em' (No. 28), 'Rain fall' (No. 29), 'No man' (No. 14), 'Bell da ring' (No. 46), and 'Can't stay behind.' 'Lay this body down' (No. 26), 'Religion so sweet' (No.17), and 'Michael row' (No. 31), were used when the load was heavy or the tide was against us. .... 
One noticeable thing about their boat-songs was that they seemed often to be sung just a trifle behind time; in 'Rain fall,' for instance, 'Believer cry holy' would seem to occupy more than its share of the stroke, the 'holy' being prolonged till the very beginning of the next stroke .... 
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Probably most people who know the Highwaymen's version of the song understand it to be a depiction of the post-death passage from life on Earth to life in Heaven. In Greek mythology, a person who had died was transported from life on Earth to life in Hades on a boat across the River Styx by a boatman named Charon. The Medieval Italian poet Dante incorporated this depiction into his poem Inferno, which made the depiction a familiar element of Western culture.

The boatman Charon transporting a boatload of dead people
across the River Styx to Hades, where the dead people
will spend the rest of eternity.
Christians (and perhaps Jews) understand the song as a similar depiction of the post-death transport of religious believers from life on Earth to life in Heaven. In this context, the song's boatman named Michael must be the Archangel Michael. Since the destination of this trip is not Hades, but rather is Heaven, the song is hopeful and joyous.

I presume that David Fisher understood the song that way and that he selected a few of the phrases and images from the original song that reinforced that understanding. Fisher excluded contradictory phrases and images, such as the lines about Gabriel sounding a trumpet, which was an element associated not with an individual's post-death passage into Heaven but rather with Judgement Day. On that future occasion, Jesus will return to Earth and decide which people will go to Heaven and which will go to Hell.

When the song became popular in the 1960s, it was adopted by the Civil Rights Movement, which sang the songs in assemblies and marches that were organized to protest against racial segregation and discrimination. In these situations the song was understood as describing passage into a reformed US society that was racially integrated.

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The African-Americans who lived on St Helena Island during the Civil War were completely ignorant of these depictions from Greek mythology and from Dante's Inferno. Their ideas and imagery came only from the Bible, which does not include any such depiction of a boatman transporting dead people across a river from life to the after-life.

It should be obvious to anyone who is familiar with the Bible's Book of Daniel that the images in this song come mainly from that book. Daniel was especially interesting to African-American slaves because that book describes particularly the experiences of the Jews who lived in captivity in Babylon, in exile far from their homeland Israel.

Furthermore, Daniel tells how these captive Jews were able to outwit and resist the kings and lords who ruled Babylon and who oppressed the Jewish captive exiles there. For example, one popular African-American slave song told the story from Daniel about Shadrack, Meshach and Abednego. This song is performed in the YouTube video below.


There was three children from the land of Israel --
Shadrack, Meshach, Abednego. 
They took a little trip into the land of Babylon.
Nebudchanezzer was the king of Babylon.
He took a lot of gold, and he made an idol. 
He told everybody:
“When you hear the music
"Of the coronet and the flute and the harp,
"You must bow down and worship the idol!” 
But the children of Israel would not bow down.
You couldn't fool them with no golden idol.  
So the king put the children in the fiery furnace.
He heaped on coal and the red-hot brimstone,
Seven times times hotter than it ought to be. 
It burned up the soldiers that the king had put there.
But the Lord sent an angel
With snowy-white wings
Down in the middle of the furnace --
Walking and talking
With the children about the Gospel.  
The fire didn't even burn a hair on the head
Of Shadrack, Meshach, Abednego --
Walking and talking While the fire was burning around. 
Now, old Nebudchanezzer called,"Hey there!"
When he saw the power of the Lord.  
And they had a big time In the house of Babylon --
Shadrack, Meshach, Abednego. 
The Fiery Furnace
in the Book of Daniel
The African-American slaves understood and enjoyed this song because they loved The Book of Daniel and loved to tell this story from that beloved book. The Jewish captives in Babylon refused to bow down and adore the wealth of the Babylonian king and his aristocracy. The Jewish captives in Babylon could be protected from the most terrible punishments by an angel, sent down to Earth by their own true God. The African-American slaves in the USA's slave states understood those Jewish captives in Babylon as being their model for resistance, perseverance and salvation.

Chapters 10 through 12 of The Book of Daniel tells a story that explicitly names the Archangel Michael. This is one of only three Bible passages that names Michael. (The other two are in Jude and Revelations. Neither of these other two passages could be associated with the Michael song.)

This story recounts a vision that was seen and interpreted by Daniel, a clever Jewish captive in Babylonia. Daniel saw this vision after he had been fasting for three weeks, so he was extremely hungry. In his vision, Daniel was standing by the Tigris River, which was a major river in Babylon. Daniel looked up and saw a radiant angel. Daniel immediately fainted and fell to the ground, unconscious. The angel woke Daniel up and explained to him that he, the angel, had been trying for three weeks to come in response to Daniel's fasting and praying, but that the angel's path to Daniel had been blocked by an evil spirit that ruled the Kingdom of Persia. (Essentially, Babylonia is Iraq, and Persia is Iran, and the two realms were separated by the Tigris River)

Eventually, however, the Archangel Michael intervened to help the angel pass through Persia and cross the Tigris River in order to advise Daniel in Babylonia. The angel then advised Daniel to remain strong and brave, because God loved and therefore would help Daniel.

The angel then foretold to Daniel that there would be a huge war that would include Persia, Babylonia, Greece, Syria and Egypt. Israel would be overrun by foreign soldiers. A foreign king would send a brutal tax-collector into Israel. He would be succeeded by a tyrant who would take over Israel by means of flattery, intrigue and deceit.

Eventually the Temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed, and the site would become a desolate place predominated by some abomination. All of humanity would suffer in the chaos, and the Jews still living in their homeland would be dispersed far abroad.

Three and a half years later, however, the Archangel Michael would appear on Earth and would rally and re-assemble the dispersed Jews and lead them back to their homeland. Many of the Jews who had died and were buried in the ground would raise up alive from their graves. Then the Jews would re-establish their own righteous kingdom and live in freedom and prosperity forever after.

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This story from The Book of Daniel includes two moments that involve the Archangel Michael and a river.

The first such moment was when the angel who wanted to advise Daniel was trying to evade the blockade that had been set up by Persia's evil spirit. Daniel was waiting on the Babylonian side of the Tigris River, and the angel tried unsuccessfully for three weeks to pass through Persia and cross the Tigris River to reach Daniel. Only when the Archangel Michael came to help did the angel finally cross the Tigris River and reach Daniel and advise him. Daniel does not explain how Archangel Michael helped the angel in this evasion, but an obvious explanation would be that Michael rowed the angel across the Tigris River in some secret manner that the Persian evil spirit did not notice.

 We can suppose that this moment in Daniel captured the imagination of the African-American slaves who were held in slavery on St Helena Island. Any such slave who thought about escaping from the island in a rowboat would have prayed to the Archangel Michael for help in evading the White militias who guarded the waterway and captured escaping slaves and returned them to the plantations.

The second such moment was when Archangel Michael assembled the defeated, dispersed Jews and led them back across the Jordan River to re-conquer their homeland. Daniel does not describe this conquest in any detail, but it would be natural to suppose that this re-conquest would follow the model of the Jews' first conquest of Canaan. The first step would be to cross the Jordan River secretly, and the second step would be to destroy the major fort city on the River's west side, the city of Jericho. 

That first step evokes an image of the Archangel Michael leading a flotilla of rowboats crossing the Jordan River secretly during a dark night. The second step evokes the image of the Jewish armies surrounding the city of Jericho and then blowing through a large number of trumpets so loudly that Jericho's walls collapsed.

This is why the later concept of Jesus returning to Earth for Judgment Day includes the element of the Angel Gabriel starting that day by blowing his trumpet so loudly that all of humanity hears the sound and that even dead people in their graves wake and rise up. Jesus himself and the Apostle Paul mentioned that an angel would play a trumpet at the beginning of Judgment Day.

These stories from Daniel inspired within the island slaves a hopeful spirit that, with the help of Archangel Michael, they eventually might be able to escape, return and liberate the island, and then return to their own African homeland.

They had to conceal, however, this interpretation of the Bible's Book of Daniel from their White masters. The explanation that the song depicted only the passage of Christians into Heaven (not the escape of slaves from the island) was acceptable to the White masters.

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 Below I offer comments about particular verses:

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I wonder where my mother's there.
See my mother on the rock, going home! --
On the rock, going home in Jesus' name. 
The above verses could be read with at least three interpretations.

1) The more apparent interpretation is that the boat passenger's previously dead mother is standing on the rock and the mother is going home to Heaven.

 2) A less apparent interpretation is that the mother is alive and waiting on the shore for her escaping child to join her. Only the child (not the mother) is going home. The mother stayed on the mainland when her child was taken away to another plantation on the island. Now the child on the boat is returning secretly to the mainland, where he and his mother will live together again.

3)  Another less apparent interpretation is that a dead person begins the process of passing into Heaven by climbing to the top of a rock or hill. This interpretation would contradict the idea that a dead person begins that process by rowing a boat across a river.

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The Michael boat is a music boat.
Gabriel, blow the trumpet horn. 
The above verse evokes the image of trumpets being smuggled secretly across the river. Once the boat has reached the destination shore, the Angel Gabriel will stand up in the boat and play music so loudly that the walls of the fortress city Jericho will collapse.

The concept of dead people crossing the River Styx into Hades or crossing some river into Heaven does not include any idea of a trumpet or any other music being played. The trumpet idea is associated with the defeat of the Jericho fortress and with the announcement of the return of the Messiah on Judgment Day.

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Oh, you mind your boasting talk.
Boasting talk will sink your soul. 
The above verse expresses the concept that the crossing of the river must remain secret in order for the crossing to succeed. This concept does not fit with the depiction of individual dead people passing into an after-life. Such a passage did not require secrecy in order to succeed.

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I wonder if my master's there.
My father's gone to an unknown land. 
The above verse might express a hope that some of the escaped slaves continued to evade the slavers on the mainland and then eventually managed to return all the way to their African homeland.

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Brother, lend a helping hand.
Sister, help to trim that boat. 
The above verse indicates that an entire family of siblings is crossing the river. The mother and father already have crossed the river -- or else they always have remained on the mainland. The father apparently has left for a distant land. Now all their children are crossing the river to join the mother.

The crossing the river is not the trip of an individual person who has died. Rather, it is a trip of a group of siblings who are traveling together.

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Oh, the Lord, he plants his garden there.
He raises the fruit for you to eat.
He that eats shall never die. 
The above verse appears to describe the crossing the river as a passage to Heaven, which made the song acceptable to the White slavers.

Only on second thought might the idea occur that the plantations on the island are not places governed by the Lord of Heaven. Only by leaving the island might a person move to a place where plantations are ruled by the Lord.

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 After the Highwaymen broke up in 1964, only Dave Fisher continued to pursue a career in music. He moved to Hollywood and developed a career arranging songs for television and music. He occasionally toured to perform in nostalgia concerts, but usually with substitutes for the quintet's original members.(For example, one such substitute singer was Gil Robbins, the father of the actor Tim Robbins.)

 During his long career as a professional musician (he died in 2010), Fisher wrote about a thousand songs. He has remained famous mostly, however, because of one re-arrangement of a century-old Negro spiritual that he did when he was a college freshman.

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