Boom and Bust: The Songs of the Erie Canal
BY GEORGE WARD
There are, in all, hundreds of musical pieces about the Erie Canal. When the Canal was completed in 1825, there were commemorative popular and art songs and band and orchestral fanfares to celebrate the occasion. And for the next ninety years the Canal appeared time and again in popular tunes, broadside ballads, in the repertoires of minstrel shows and in vaudeville. It is those popular songs particularly - shaped and reshaped by usage and the passage of time - that became the heart of the Erie Canal song tradition.
The phonograph appeared in time to make Thomas A. Allen’s nostalgia piece - originally titled “Fifteen Years on the Erie Canal”- an Edison cylinder hit even as the old “horse ocean” faded into history with the advent of the mechanized Barge Canal. Little did Allen know that his song would be alive, well and reshaped by everything from oral tradition to Bruce Springsteen a hundred years later!
Authors, poets and songwriters, to this day, continue to expand the Canal’s musical legacy. With the arrival of the Canal’s 200th anniversary, high-culture musical ensembles and composers - perhaps more adventurously than their nineteenth-century predecessors - are bringing the Canal back to the concert stage.
The rarest canal songs, the most ephemeral, are the true folksongs, songs made by canallers themselves and their communities that were never widely circulated, written down or recorded. A few date back to the Canal’s earliest days. A few are still made, and only reluctantly shared outside of a family, a crew or a community.
Do the songs matter? Well, perhaps they are like the fabled (though very real) canary carried underground by coal miners in olden times. As long as the bird kept singing, the miners knew that the air was untainted by dangerous gasses. If the bird could breath, they could. The Erie Canal’s life as a major freight way - while not entirely gone - will never be what it once was. But for those who have remade it into the shining waterfront of landlocked towns across New York State, and for those who seek adventure on it now as a recreational waterway, it breathes indeed. As long as we sing of the Canal and spin its stories, it too lives.