Dear Straight Dope:
My hippie-type classmates during college in the 60s used to sing "Kumbaya," apparently in solidarity with the civil rights movement. They also used to sing "Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore." Who was Michael, and why was rowing the boat ashore such a great achievement?
It’s not Michael rowed the boat ashore, it’s row the boat. As mangled lyrics go, this isn’t up there with "excuse me while I kiss this guy," but we pride ourselves on precision around here.
"Michael Row the Boat Ashore" predates the Civil War. The history and origins of old Negro spirituals are generally obscure–the slaves didn’t usually write things down, and their masters rarely thought slave songs were worth investigating. "Michael" is an exception, since we do have enough references to pinpoint the general origin of the song, if not its precise meaning.
"Michael Row the Boat Ashore" is a rowing song. That’s not as obvious as it sounds. "Michael" is the only rowing song we know about that’s actually about boats. It was first mentioned in 1863 as a song sung by black slaves in the Georgia Sea Islands. Pete Seeger, in The Incompleat Folksinger, mentions that slaves brought from Africa spent their lives on these small islands, out of touch with mainland life. “The only transportation was small boats and strong arms to row them," he writes. The boat crews from different plantations would have their own rowing songs, each song exclusive to the plantation. “Michael” is mentioned in the letters of some teachers who went to the islands in 1862-63.
Like many spirituals, “Michael Row the Boat Ashore" combines religious expression ("hallelujah") with quotidian detail ("row the boat ashore"). The boat is a musical boat — the slaves often expressed themselves creatively by starting with their musical instrument (“Little David play on your harp”) and the boat was the “instrument” of the rowers. Note other religious images (Jordan River, chills the body but not the soul, milk and honey). Historians of spirituals classify the song as both a spiritual and a work song, and some argue that it is more properly a sea chanty.
Who is Michael and why is he rowing? We’ve covered the rowing part–to get to the mainland. There are two main theories on who Michael is. The least likely (in my amateur opinion) is that Michael was the name of the oarsman from a particular plantation. The more popular theory is that Michael is the archangel Michael, who is being called on to help when the rowing was tough. Regardless of the origins of the song, I suspect the latter interpretation is why the song became widespread.
The song’s popularity soared in the late 50s and early 60s, due partly to its having been sung by Harry Belafonte, and partly to being so easily singable in large groups.
Black Song: The Forge and Flame, by John Lovell Jr., 1972
Sinful Tunes and Spirituals, by Dena J. Epstein, 1977
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