In my longish story on the Wreck of the Shenandoah, I mentioned the release, and subsequent about face by the publisher, of a song by the same name within a week of the disaster.
At the time, I was unable to find words or music to the song, although I suspected that a child’s school paper on the event was a transcription of the song, unrecognized by that child’s family as they memorialized him.
The always excellent Mudcat Cafe forums, in this thread, one rich r, (whom I suspect of being my deeply knowledgeable acquaintance Rich Remsberg), contributes the complete lyrics to the song, which I’ve shamelessly reproduced below.
Interestingly, given the sourcing that rich r gives the lyrics, it’s possible that the commercial genesis of the song was lost by those that kept the song in circulation and was therefore collected as a specimen of oral tradition.
This particular juncture of myth and ideology in American folk studies is something I’m very interested in – oral transmission of commercial music, incorporating mutating lyrics and melodic variations, produces some of my very favorite songs.
There’s a remarkable set of coincidences described in the thread on the Mudcat board as well – Dale Rose writes
This puts me in mind of an extraordinary night, which still holds a place in my mind as one of those magical evenings which one never forgets.
A good many years ago, about 1961 or 1962 I think, I was spending the night with my cousin Johnny and his family in Southern Illinois. We spent the evening in our usual pursuits, just talking about whatever came to mind ~~ a thoroughly enjoyable evening spent with family. We played the old 78s on their windup phonograph, including The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Vernon Dalhart, and many others of the string band era. Among the Vernon Dalhart songs that we played was The Wreck of the Shenandoah. It was the first time I had ever heard it. Later we spent a good while outdoors looking at the six story tall balloon satellite which was clearly visible in the night sky, looking much like a moving star ~~ certainly a very large airship, if you will.
A couple of hours later, along about midnight, we were looking through a box of miscellaneous items that Johnny had purchased at a sale the previous week. Among the items was a piece of fabric, rolled up and tied with a faded red ribbon. It was fairly heavy material as I remember it, black on one side and a shiny metallic on the other. We untied the ribbon and unrolled the fabric, which was perhaps a foot square or thereabouts. Inside was a card which identified the fabric as a piece of the airship Shenandoah. We sat there in silence for a moment not quite comprehending the enormity of it all. Even now, nearly 40 years later and almost 75 years after the event, the coincidence of the moment still holds its spell for me. It is quite possible that we were the only ones to play the song that particular evening, and most certainly the only ones to play it, then to hold in our hands a piece of that very airship a few hours later.
WRECK OF THE SHENANDOAH
At four o’clock one evening
On a warm September day
A great and mighty airship
From Lakehurst flew away.
The mighty Shenandoah
The pride of all this land,
Her crew was of the bravest,
Captain Lansdowne in command.
At four o’clock next morning
The earth was far below
When a storm in all its fury
Gave her a fatal blow.
Her side was torn asunder
Her cabin was torn down
The captain and his brave men
Went crashing to the ground.
And fourteen lives were taken
But they’ve not died in vain
Their names will live forever
Within the hall of fame.
In the little town of Greenville
A mother’s watchful eye
Was waiting for the airship,
To see her son go by.
Alas! her son lay sleeping;
His last great flight was o’er.
He’s gone to meet his Maker;
His ship will fly no more.
source: Frank C Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore
And finally, you can hear a clip of the song from the CD “Inducted into the Hall of Fame, 1981: Vernon Dalhart” at Amazon.
3 thoughts on “Blimp Week Followup Pt. III”
Good article. My mother usered to sing a fourth verse:
“For hours they bravely struggled
They worked with all their might
But the storm could not be conquered
So the ship gave up the fight”
Just ran across your story on the Wreck of the Shenandoah. Was trying to do some research on the sheet music I have, which you have a photo of in your story. Incidentally the Child’s School Paper text is closest to the actual lyrics from the sheet music. There are 3 verses and the sheet music is arranged for Ukelele and piano. The lyrics you posted leave off the last half of the 3rd verse. I could write the lyrics from the sheet music if you are interested.
I looked your site up because my mother-in-laws boyfriend had downloaded some old music for me and the song to match your site is in that download. I would be happy to send it to you so you can place it on your website and play it for visotors. I am from Ohio and have passed the wreck location many times on my way to visit relatives. Very good information, thanks! If you are interested please e-mail me and we can figure out how to put it on.
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