Fifteen Years on the Erie Canal
Long layoff periods between hauls, stretches spent in port loading and unloading cargo and passengers, and waiting in line at locks provided canallers a great deal of leisure time. Recreational activities included fighting, playing games and racing anything from caterpillars to frogs. Perhaps the most popular diversion, and one that provided entertainment for all ages and types, was music. Canal travelers and boat crews had an apparent inclination towards song, and it became the most enduring and recognizable feature of Erie Canal culture.
Music first came to the Erie Canal with the workers who dug the ditch, a mix of freed slaves, native born Americans, and immigrants from the British Isles.
Work songs such as "The Ballad of Johnnie Troy" were introduced to break the tedium in places like the malaria-ridden Montezuma Swamp. As the work continued and the canal grew, songs popular in taverns and inns in the area also began to enter the repertory.
Lionel Wyld in his book Low Bridge! Folklore and the Erie Canal divides canal music into three categories: songs about the canal, sung by canallers; songs that gained popularity at the inns and taverns along the towpath and imported music, brought from other waterways and regions.
As the Erie Canal was essentially the nation's only school of engineering, many that worked on the original waterway went on to help construct other canal systems, roadways and even railroads. These individuals took with them the music of the Erie, which, would often find its lyrics altered to fit a different situation, environment or time. This was a common practice even along the Erie Canal itself. There are many instances where a single melody was used in several different songs, at various sections of the canal. The employment of "floating verses" was also common, as lyrics from one song would find their way into another. In other cases canal specific lyrics were written for use along with the melody of a popular song of the day. The Wedding of the Waters for example was sung to the tune of a traditional Scottish/Irish song, Old Head of Dennis.
Songs were learned and shared with surprising speed. Beyond the tradition of passing songs along the towpath, newspapers would often print the lyrics of new canal songs with a note of the melody to which the words should be sung. This resulted in the spread of familiar canal music to all corners of the state.
While it is obvious that canal music is influenced by and borrowed from many different musical traditions, songs of the canal were frequently modeled after the music of Ireland and Scotland. While this is often attributed to the perceived role that Irish immigrants played in the construction of the canal, the Irish influence on the canal was not apparent until the period of its enlargement, during the late 1830s and 1840s, during which period many immigrants came to the United States to escape the potato famine.
When an enlargement of the Erie Canal was begun in 1835, so many Irish worked on the construction that they were immortalized in "Paddy on the Canal."
As time passed, more and more people made their livelihoods on the waterway. Songs and shouts accompanied boatmen as they waited in line at locks or loaded and unloaded cargo. They came in contact with sailors, and sea shanties like "The Dark-Eyed Sailor" became "The Dark-Eyed Canaller."
"Fifteen Years on the Erie Canal" is probably the most recognized canal song of all time. Thomas S. Allen wrote the song in 1905 after Erie Canal barge traffic was converted from mule power to engine power, raising the speed of traffic. The song is also known as "Low Bridge, Everybody Down," "The Erie Canal Song," "Mule Named Sal," and "Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal." The song memorializes the years from 1825 to 1880 when the mule barges made boomtowns out of Utica, Rome, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo, and transformed New York into the Empire State.
The music cover published in 1915 depicts a boy on a mule getting down to pass under a bridge, but the song refers to travelers who would typically ride on top of the boats. The low bridges would require them to get down out of the way to allow safe passage under a bridge.
Studies on American music history focuses primarily on songs from the Pre- Civil War south, Negro spirituals and children's ballads, often overlooking the importance of canal music and its place in our national cultural heritage.