Astonishingly, this absolutely beautiful American folk song has no story, no source, no author. For more than a century we've associated it with the battle-weary Civil War soldiers or the musical chants of flatboat rivermen or freed slaves or lovesick men and women missing home, not to mention a single white man who fell in love with a daughter of Native chief somewhere in the mythical American west. "Shenandoah" is an open book.
It belongs to the Shenandoah River valley, I suppose, although I can't help thinking that I own at least some of it, living here, less than an hour from the song's own breathtaking "wide Missouri." Right now, you're listening to an English choir, who've no more or less right to its riches than some guy with a rifle and coonskin cap. "Shenandoah" is totally American, but it belongs to all of us.
Someplace, somewhere, there's a grave--maybe it's unmarked--where a man or woman is buried in American ground, someone who, once upon a time, listened to a blend of notes in his head and simply started to sing what he or she heard. Listen.
He didn't get a penny for it, but I can't help thinking that somewhere today he smiles when yet another high school choir picks it up for its fall concert or some singer/songwriter throws it into her mix.
Tons of lyrics and endless variations exist. Just about everyone who is anyone has sung it. Listen sometime to Chanticleer, or Tennessee Ernie Ford in a virtual concert with Sissel. With a click, you can bring back Harry Belefonte or Paul Robeson.
"Shenandoah" has no birthday, no debut, not even a creator, and certainly no copyright. No one gets royalties. But in the human repertoire, it's among the most beautiful hymns to life and to memory and to our unquenchable desire to return to something and someplace we believe in. This river of a song is itself so broad that it's come to feature the precious landscapes where each of us find home.
Life itself is enriched by "Shenandoah." This morning, maybe this morning particularly, its beauty is reason enough for thanks.