The origins of "Shenandoah," perhaps one of America's most recognizable folk tunes, are not so easily deciphered. Like many folk songs, it is impossible to determine exactly when the song was composed, yet the song probably did not originate later than the Civil War. In any case, by the end of the nineteenth century, "Shenandoah" had achieved widespread popularity, both on land and at sea.
American folklorist Alan Lomax suggested that "Shenandoah" was a sea-shanty and that its "composers" quite possibly were French-Canadian voyageurs. Sea-shanties were work songs used by sailors to coordinate the efforts of completing chores such as raising the ship's anchor or hauling ropes. The formal structure of a shanty is simple: it consists of a solo lead that alternates with a boisterous chorus. With the sweeping melodic line of its familiar refrain, "Shenandoah" is the very nature of a sea-shanty; indeed, the song's first appearance in print was in an article by William L. Alden, titled "Sailor Songs," published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in 1882.
As unclear as the song's origin is, so is the definitive interpretation of its text. Some believe that the song refers to the river of the same name. Others suggest that it is of African-American origin, for it tells the tale of Sally, the daughter of the Indian Chief Shenandoah, who is courted for seven years by a white Missouri river trader. Regardless of these textual discrepancies, "Shenandoah" remains an American classic.