Since releasing my album, I’ve faced a deluge of questions (well, one) about the closing song “Shenandoah,” and the story of its lyrics.
It started about four or five years ago when an American friend took an interest in the fact the name “Shenandoah” appears on the map near Murchison, in the upper South Island. He had grown up near the Shenandoah Valley in the state of Virginia and was curious as to how the name had arrived here. This sparked my own interest and the story ended up becoming the basis for a song.
The original Shenandoah is a famous American river, flowing through fertile farm land between the Appalachian and Blue Ridge mountains. The origins of the name are somewhat hazy – it is believed to be derived from a Native American expression meaning “beautiful daughter of the stars.”
The river has popped up repeatedly in popular music, most famously in the first verse of John Denver’s “Take me Home, Country Roads.”
“Almost heaven, West Virginia
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River”
The beautiful traditional song “Shenandoah,” which has many different versions and is the official state song of Virginia, may also refer to the Shenandoah River, depending on which version of its lyrics you look at.
It’s at this point I have to confess that the story I tell in the lyrics to my own Shenandoah song is “somewhat impressionistic” (that’s French for almost total bullshit). I simply skimmed a few articles about the Shenandoah connection in New Zealand, took the vague gist of some of the details and constructed a tune and rhyme scheme that fitted. It was never intended as an historic document, and shouldn’t be taken as one; it’s riddled with inaccuracies.
So in the interests of recovering a few of the tattered remains my journalistic credibility, I will here relate the true(ish) story of how the name Shenandoah travelled halfway around the world to a remote South Island valley.
One of early New Zealand’s most colourful characters was George Fairweather Moonlight. Moonlight came from a fishing background in Scotland and he, along with his cousin Thomas, made his way to New Zealand via the goldfields of California and Australia in the 1850’s. George Moonlight, who was often known as “Captain,” was a striking character – tall, strong and incredibly self-reliant. His skill as a prospector and explorer became legendary as he travelled the South Island, exploring remote areas of wilderness, opening up new routes to the mountainous interior and making incredible strikes of gold. His most famous, at what became known as Moonlight Creek, near Blackball on the West Coast, yielded over 8 tons.
Moonlight’s travels took him to the Murchison area, where for a time he owned a hotel. During this time he continued to restlessly explore the wilderness, naming several landscape features, including a river he called Shenandoah. Exactly why he chose this name is not known. Although in my song I describe Moonlight and his brother Tom arriving on the banks of the Shenandoah River in Virginia, there is no evidence the real Moonlight actually ever went there.
Also he didn’t have a brother called Tom.
He did, however have two cousins called Thomas. One had travelled with him to New Zealand, while the other had gone to Kansas, where he rapidly rose through the ranks of the army to become a colonel. Although cousin Thomas certainly fought in the Civil War, he didn’t die in it, as the character in my song does. In fact after retiring from service, Thomas went on to become the Governor of Wyoming.
George Moonlight died at the age of 52 in the remote New Zealand wilderness he loved, prospecting for gold. It took his family three months to find his body, which was laid to rest in a Nelson cemetery.
Songs are funny things. Sometimes they spew forth as complete entities, claiming their right to exist in a certain state, no matter how hard you might try to change or correct them. Shenandoah (my version) is one such song. It is a folk tale; a complete fabrication loosely based on a few true elements. But I couldn’t write it any differently if I tried. So please don’t take it too seriously!
When I wrote the song five years ago I had never been to the Murchison area. It was only a couple of months ago that I finally got the chance to spend a few hours there, when I was coming home after touring on the West Coast. I felt like I’d walked into the lyrics of my song when I pulled into the small town of Murchison to find a bearded man on a Clydesdale-drawn cart trundling down the main street.
I went to the visitor’s centre and asked to be directed to the Shenandoah River, imagining I would be driving up some gravel road to find a grand, dark river pouring austerely through bush-clad wilderness. However the lady at the desk only looked blank for a while, then informed me there was no Shenandoah River, only the Shenandoah highway, which forms part of the state highway between Nelson and Christchurch.
Somewhat deflated, I left Murchison and headed south. I had a long drive back to Dunedin and wanted to put some miles behind me before nightfall. Rounding the corner as the day’s last light faded in the beech forest, I came to a bridge and immediately slammed on the brakes .The yellow AA sign on the bridge informed me that actually, there was a Shenandoah river – and here it was!
Except…. it was called the Shenandoah Stream. And it was a trickle! An unexceptional, blink-and-you’d-miss-it creek bubbling under the small concrete bridge before disappearing unobtrusively into the Maruia River a few miles away.
I could hardly believe it. But then I thought, well, what else did I expect? This song that seemed to write itself in my head stubbornly refuses to conform to any kind of historical accuracy, so why would it bother to reflect any physical accuracy either?
So there you have it, the story of Shenandoah – a truly fraudulent song. But don’t blame me; it was my unscholarly muse that did it.