Dating way back to the early 1900s, “Low Bridge, Everybody Down” (aka “The Erie Canal Song”) is well over a century old. The song takes a nostalgic look even farther back, to the mid-1800s, when traffic on the upstate New York canal consisted mainly of barges towed by mules, eventually replaced by engine power.
In 1912, when Thomas S. Allen wrote and recorded “Low Bridge,” the Erie Canal was being absorbed into the New York State Barge Canal System and the era of mule power was romanticized with a longing for the good old days. So, here we are in the 21st century, looking back at a song from the early 20th century that memorializes the mid-19th century. That’s some nostalgia for you!
The popularity of “Low Bridge” came in two major waves, first in the early 20th century, through recordings by singers such as Billy Murray and Vernon Dalhart. In the postwar folk era that lasted well into the 1960s, versions by Pete Seeger, the Weavers, the Kingston Trio, and others made the song a staple in the pantheon of folk music.
As with most traditional numbers, there have been variations in the style and lyrics over the years. One of the most conspicuous differences has been the change from Allen’s original line of “15 years on the Erie Canal” to “15 miles on the Erie Canal.” (Fifteen miles was the average distance a mule would tow a barge before resting or being relieved by another mule.) Use whichever lyric your prefer—hey, it’s your call when you’re the singer.
For this arrangement I use a common boom-chuck strum pattern and simple open chords. The progression itself is relatively basic but has some cool touches. I particularly like the recurring sequence of chords—E–B7/F#–G–Em with a stepwise bass line motif (E to F# to G)—that’s used throughout the song. It’s no more difficult to play the B7 chord with the fifth (F#) rather than the root (B) in the bass in these passages, but it gives you a distinctive lifting movement that really draws the listener in.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.