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“De Boatmen’s Dance”

‘We can’t sing so soon after eating,’ said Pa. ‘So I’ll just limber up the fiddle.’ – Merrily he played, ‘Away Down the River on the O-hi-o!’ And, ‘Why Chime the Bells So Merrily’… — By the Shores of Silver Lake, Chapter 19, “Christmas Eve”

What Pa played merrily and Laura called “Away Down the River on the Ohio” was most likely “De Boatmen’s Dance,” an 1843 minstrel song by Dan Emmett, published by Charles Keith in Boston. Slightly different lyrics were published in 1854 by William Hall & Son, New York, attributed to E.P. Christy “as sung at Christy’s American Opera House.” The song was widely distributed in both music and broadside (printed advertisement) publications.

Daniel Decatur Emmett (1815-1904) was born in Mount Vernon, Ohio, the son of a blacksmith. He was apprenticed to a printer, and worked for a newspaper as a teenager, but his strong interest in music was apparent. He taught himself to play the flute and violin, and enlisted in Army in 1834 as a fife player, falsifying his age. He was released the following year. In the late 1830s, Emmett worked for a circus, writing blackface songs and performing – both on banjo and singing. In 1842, he formed an act in which the “bones” were used as a musical instrument. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote that her father played the bones in the minstrel show performed for a Friday Night Literary in De Smet (see Little Town on the Prairie, Chapter 21, “The Madcap Days”).

In 1842, Dan Emmett (fiddle), Billy Whitlock (banjo), Dick Pelham (tambourine), and Frank Brower (bones) formed the Virginia Minstrels, performing as an “Ethiopian band” in blackface. They wore the clothes of plantation workers and performed both as a coordinated team and as individuals. They were an immediate success in both America and England. Both “De Boatmen’s Dance” and “Old Dan Tucker” – another Little House song – became part of the repertory of minstrels everywhere. Another of Emmett’s songs, “I Wish I Was in Dixie’s Land” – or “Dixie” – became a synonym for the South in the Civil War, and its success would prove to be the high point of Emmett’s career.

Shortly after the Civil War, Dan Emmett lost his voice and toured as a violinist. He retired to Mount Vernon, Ohio, but performed “Dixie” on occasion, always to enthusiastic crowds. He died in Mount Vernon in 1904.


[chorus] High row, de boatmen row,
floatin’ down de riber, de O-hi-o.

1. De boatmen dance, de boatmen sing,
De boatmen up to ebry ting,
An when de boatmen gets on shore,
He spends his cash and works for more
Den dance de boatmen dance,
O dance de boatmen dance,
O dance all night till broad daylight,
An go home wid de gals in de morning.

2. De oyster boat should keep to de shore,
De fishing smack should benture more,
De schooner sails before de wind,
De steamboat leaves a streak behind.
Den dance de boatmen dance…

3. I went on board de odder day
To see what de boatmen had to say;
Der I let my passion loose
An dey cram me in de callaboose.
Den dance de boatmen dance…

4. I’ve come dis time, I’ll come no more,
Let me loose I’ll go on shore;
For dey whole hoss, and dey a bulle crew
Wid a hossier mate an a captain too.
Den dance de boatmen dance…

5. When you go to the boatmen’s ball,
Dance wid my wife, or don’t dance at all;
Sky blue jacket an tarpaulin hat,
Look out my boys for de nine tail cat.
Den dance de boatmen dance…

6. De boatmen is a thrifty man,
Dars noze can do as de boatmen can;
I neber see a purty gal in my life
But dat she was a boatman’s wife.
Den dance de boatmen dance…

7. When de boatman blows his horn,
Lok out old man your hog is gone;
He cotch my sheep, he cotch my shoat,
Den put em in a bag and toat em to the boat
Den dance de boatmen dance…

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Click on the images above to view a copy of 1860s sheet music of “De Boatmen’s Dance.”    


“De Boatmen’s Dance” (SSL 19), called “Away Down the River on the O-hi-o” in By the Shores of Silver Lake