About a zillion years ago, when I was in the Girl Scouts (Brownie through a year of Cadettes), we used to sing about the Shenandoah River in a campfire song.
Oh, Shenandoah, I long to see you,
Away you rolling river.
Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you,
Away, I’m bound away,
‘cross the wide Missouri.
I always loved that song and still can sing that first verse from memory. Which is exactly what I did in Harpers Ferry when I found myself standing, after all those years, on the bank of the Shenandoah River in West Virginia.
I hadn’t planned it. There was a riding lawnmower near the sidewalk into Harpers Ferry so I had headed down to the water to escape the noise. And then, there it was, the Shenandoah River. I walked along the dirt trail next to it, soaking up the experience of seeing something that had the power of legend to me. I can’t quite find the words to explain how magical it was to find it, completely unexpected, like a gift from the vagabond gods.
I spent more time on the banks of the river than I did in the village of Harpers Ferry. The river, as most rivers tend to do, captured my heart and I wanted to be near it like a new lover wants to be near their beloved. Rivers, lakes, oceans, I have a type, that’s for sure, and it took less than thirty seconds for me to fall in love with this one.
So the rest of y’all can visit Harpers Ferry and give that river to the right a quick glance if you want. Me, I’ll be the one sitting on that big rock just off the dirt trail, dangling my feet in the water, softly singing an old sweet song to the river.
The melody has the roll and surge and freedom of a tall ship sweeping along before a trade wind. The sonorous succession of long vowels and soft and liquid consonants blend perfectly with the romantic air. The lines are a call from the homeland to the sailor wandering far out across the seas, a call not from a sweetheart, a house, or even a town, but from the land itself, its rivers and its familiar and loved hills.
John and Alan Lomax (Best Loved American Folk Songs)