“Oh Shenandoah,” sometimes called “Shenandoah” or “Across the Wide Missouri,” is an American folk heirloom which, ironically, was most likely written by French-Canadian fur traders in the 16th century. As the traders often did business with Native Americans in what is now known as the Great Lakes region, the earliest version of the song—and the one we sought to capture in our example—is speculated to have been about a romantic relationship between one of the fur traders and the daughter of Oneida Iroquois chief John Skenandoa. The song has been covered by everyone from Glen Campbell to Bob Dylan to Jerry Garcia.
Although adaptations of “Shenandoah” for solo voice and guitar are widespread, it originated as a sea shanty, a song form whose melody is meant to alternate between a soloist and chorus. It was only in the late 1800s that “Shenandoah” was published, its earliest appearance being in The New Dominion Monthly in 1876 under the title “Shenadore.” Folklorists further analyzed its origins in a few texts in the 1880s and ’90s that documented American folk songs. In Studies in Folk-Song and Popular Poetry, author Alfred Mason writes, “[Sea shanties] have various forms—a continued and unbroken melody, as when turning the capstan or pumping, or they show an emphatic accentuation at regular intervals, as when stretching out a bowline with renewed pulls.” He continues, “Shenandoah” is a “good specimen” of a bowline chant.
You can see what’s meant by this description if you take a look at the lyrics, in which the second and fourth lines of each verse stay the same. The first and third lines are meant to be sung by an individual, while the second and fourth are to be chorused back by the crew. It’s less common that you come across recordings in this shanty style, but some online include one performance on YouTube by the all-male choir Before the Mast, and a recording by the Storm Weather Shanty Choir.
Passed down over hundreds of years, countless versions of the song have been written, with as many lyrical variations as there are arrangers. Especially during the Civil War, the word “Shenandoah” was often replaced by the name of a lover. This arrangement, by the singer-songwriter Maurice Tani, is fairly straightforward, but there are some details that set it apart from the most basic folk accompaniment. For one, instead of a full open G chord, Tani uses a four-note G5 shape, with the A and high E strings deadened by the third and fourth fingers, respectively. This way, only low and midrange Gs and Ds are heard, making for a punchier sound without the added information of the chord’s third (B).
Tani also uses two types of D chords, one a basic open shape, and the other with the third (F#) on the low E string. He plays the latter grip with his second finger on the sixth string, but feel free to wrap your thumb around the neck to fret the low F# if that’s more comfortable to you. Other less common chords—at least in this type of setting—include the Em7–A7sus4 move. For efficient switching, keep your fourth finger on the D on string 2 for both chords.
As for the right hand, try the fingerpicking patterns shown below. In the third pattern, note the smooth way in which the bass line travels between G5 and Em7, the two chords connected on the “and” of beat 2 with a low F#. Also, be sure to check out the accompanying video, in which Tani’s vibrato and simple vocal touches lend an earnest quality to this folk gem.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.