The official Bruce Springsteen website has been updated with lots of material from the upcoming Seeger Sessions album, including detailed historical and musical background on each of the songs on the album. The liner notes were written by definitive Bruce biographer Dave Marsh (and editor of the great journal Rock & Rap Confidential). Check out the notes for “Erie Canal”:
“Written in 1905 by Thomas S. Allen as “Low Bridge, Everybody Down,” but now as much a folk song as if it had been written anonymously eighty years earlier when the canal was America’s most important highway. The Canal, constructed at huge expense from 1817 to 1825 to link New York City and the East with Buffalo and what was then the West, was America’s first great national thoroughfare. It remained important until the heyday of the railroad, and after being enlarged from 1903-1918, remains in operation today, although now used mostly for recreation.
Travel was slow, in the early years on barges drawn by horses, and there were also long layoffs that inspired a whole range of recreations, including frog racing, drinking contests and fist fights. An entire genre of canal songs also developed: songs about the canal, songs that were popular at the inns and bars en route, songs sung by canal workers, songs by and for travelers.
By 1905, when Thomas Allen wrote his song, canal traffic was motor-powered and the idea of a mule-drawn barge tapped into nostalgia. “Low Bridge” reflects some knowledge of how the canal actually operated though, because as it passed through cities, the Canal did pass under some very low spans. And fifteen miles would have been a realistic pace for those early days, too.
“Erie Canal” remains a song most commonly known from parties and in play groups but a few folksingers like Glenn Yarborough and the Weavers have recorded it. The Sons of the Pioneers did a western version. Dan Zanes recently made a version for one of his children’s albums, with Suzanne Vega singing lead. Pete’s version can be found on several discs, including American Favorite Ballads, Volume 3