I'm Afloat
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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. Additionally, "gambling and liquor…provided almost a constant diversion for canallers of all sorts." (Wyld, 63) 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.

The singing and playing of music served several important functions for canallers, helping to pass the time on long and tedious stretches of canal, providing entertainment while at dock, and in the telling of stories, imparting folktales through song.
The music of canallers also provided insight into canal society itself, often using simple instruments and basic melodies that could learned and passed along with ease, and employing the "hearty, often scurrilous and earthy language" of those who worked on the canal.

Again, 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 (ashore songs); and imported music, brought from other waterways and regions. While the first two classifications are fairly straightforward, the third needs to be discussed in further depth.


The E-ri-e
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"This is one of the few canal songs continuously sung into the 20th century...This song, like many folk songs, has "floating" verses--verses used interchangeably with other canal songs." --William Hullfish
This went both ways. Below are several examples of songs with the same melody and different lyrics.
As the Erie Canal was essentially the nation's only school of engineering, many who 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, while sometimes applicable as it was, would often find its lyrics altered to fit a different situation, environment or time. This was a common even along the Erie Canal itself. As such, 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. Musician and historian William Hullfish maintains that the Irish/Scottish flavor of canal music is more likely due to the fact that even at this time, America had not yet established a music of its own and therefore was heavily influenced by the popular tunes of the time, those of Burns and Moore for example, which were traditionally European, particularly from Great Britain.

The Raging Canal
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Low Bridge!
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While canal songs achieved a regional popularity during the antebellum period, the ones that were best known then are not those most often associated with the canal by contemporary audiences. The song, Low Bridge! (also known as 15 Miles on the Erie Canal) was a twentieth century folk creation, written long after the canal era. Perhaps the most well known Erie Canal song of the nineteenth century was The Raging Canal, which was subsequently used as the melody a poem by Mark Twain from Roughing It, but later faded into obscurity. Its regional nature and connection to an obsolete mode of transportation are perhaps explanations for its gradual fade from public memory. The current scholarship on American music history focuses primarily on songs from the antebellum south, Negro spirituals and children's ballads, often overlooking the importance of canal music and its place in our national cultural heritage.