Arguably, the most recognized Erie Canal song is Low Bridge, Everybody Down. Many people, including publishers and Hollywood film makers, believed it was a 19th century folk song. Many more recognize that it was written by tin-pan alley composer, Thomas S. Allen, but believe that it was composed in 1905. The truth is that Thomas Allen composed Low Bridge, Everybody Down (or Fifteen Years on the Erie Canal) in Rochester, New York sometime between 1911 and its copyright in 1912. [Lyrics to Low Bridge]
Because the Erie Canal was so famous, there are songs written by professional songwriters that were sung in Broadway shows and may have never actually been sung on the canal. Among them are Look Out, Dat Low Bridge (1881) by David Braham and Edward Harrigan and Down by the Erie Canal (1915) by George M. Cohen. One professionally written canal song that seems to have been sung by canallers is The Raging Canal (1844) by entertainer Pete Morris. [Lyrics to The Raging Canal]
There is another category of canal song that took popular songs of the day and turned them into canal songs. Canallers used two songs by Rochester composer Henry Russell (actually a British songwriter who lived in Rochester for about a decade). Russellís parodied songs are A Life on the Ocean Wave and Iím Afloat. They became A Life on the Raging Canal and Iím Afloat on the Erie Canal. Another Braham and Harrigan song parodied by canallers was Never Take the Horseshoe from the Door which became Never Take the Hind Shoe from a Mule. These songs have been collected many times along the canal and were definitely sung by canallers. [Lyrics to I'm Afloat] [Lyrics to Never Take the Hind Shoe from a Mule]
A third category of Erie Canal songs are those collected from the canal that were most likely composed by anonymous canallers. They include A Trip on the Erie, Boating on a Bullhead, Black Rock Pork, From Buffalo to Troy, The E-ri-e, and The Good Ship Called Danger. [Lyrics to A Trip on the Erie]
The Erie Canal was so famous that professional songwriters used it as a subject for commercial songs, and the popular songs that came from professional song writers were parodied and turned into canal songs. Very few of the collected canal songs have come down to us with the original melodies, and, other than the parodies, it is difficult to determine if there was a standard melody or set of lyrics for most of these songs. Although other canal songs have been collected, this is a brief survey of the types of songs sung on and about the Erie Canal.
Text courtesy of Bill Hullfish, editor of The Canaller's Songbook. Images courtesy of Bill Hullfish and the Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music, The Sheridan Libraries, The Johns Hopkins University.