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Shenandoah – a fraudulent song!

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.

10 responses »

  1. There are some song writers whose stories I like a lot and want to relate to the stories in the songs only to find out that all of their songs are just MADE UP. BS I do not know. no reason to apologize. Just a true sign of inspiration!!! 🙂 Love the song.

  2. Shirley Canifored

    For those of us who live in West Virginia and drive over the beautiful Shenandoah River everyday, it is no bullshit. High up the hill from the river sits my beautiful Victorian homeplace, called “Charmadoah”, named after the Shenandoah River which it overlooks. The Shenandoah River is not a stream, trickle, or fantasy. People fish it everyday and catch wonderful sun perch and catfish; canoeists challenge it’s meandering curves, powerful rushes over rocks, and deep waters. By moonlight, it is the most romantic spot in the world; by daylight, it is a bustling torrent of water, bringing life, fun and enjoyment to all who treasure it, like I do. I invite you to come view it from my back porch.

    • Hi Shirley
      Thank you for your comment.
      Sorry for the slow reply, I have been a bit lazy on my blog recently. I would love to visit the Shenandoah – I am coming to the US this year and hope to get up that way – I’d love to take you up on your invitation, sounds like you have a wonderful spot!


      • We’d love to see you. Give me some dates when you might be in the area and we’ll be sure to be here. We’re about 60 miles from Washington, DC (and Baltimore, Md.). People love to visit Harpers Ferry, WV, where my home is. It’s a quiet little community, lots of history and beautiful scenery.

      • Thanks Shirley – will do. I’d love to play a gig up there somewhere – do you know of anywhere that might be a good bet for a show?

      • I’m really sorry and apologize for having to tell you that I’m not familiar with your music! I was searching the web about the Shenandoah River when your blog came up and I just had to comment because our home overlooks the Shenandoah River. I don’t know what kind of audience you’re used to….large as in major buildings, medium as in a little auditorium or small as in outside in an open area. Harpers Ferry is just a tiny town; we have one little community park…a rather retiriing age group…I doubt many would pay a concert ticket but many would come to hear free music on someone’s lawn. What are you used to doing for a performance?
        I’ve asked several of my friends if they are familiar with your music…,.I guess we’re all fuddy duddies because they all are in the dark with me. But you’re welcome to come see the Shenandoah River, sit a spell on our porch and tell me more about your music. I’m always anxious to learn.

    • Beautiful song. Now I understand the blog and comments about the “Shenandoah”, be it a river, valley, stream, or ‘feeling’. It is all of those things and you’ve added a whole new dimension with your song…plus a new location. I play with a band called the “Angel Band”,,it is primarily a dulcimer band playing mostly folk hymns. I play a flute but we have a fiddler, bass, and hammered dulcimer and even a banjo. We’re just a small group that plays only around our area churches but we also do a celtic festival. I only tell you this so you will understand how much we appreciate folk music and your song really is a very nice one, wonderful story and so interesting. I think if you traveled to our area, you’d be surprised to see another “kind of Shenandoah” but you may be tired of the song by now. I think you’d find you could write a few new verses to your song. Surprisingly, when my father died, we had “Oh Shenandoah” played on an organ at his funeral. It is a favorite of ther area and dear to so many with meaningful memories. And our river it a little bigger than a stream but not a major waterway. Check out our website at Charmadoah,com…it tells a little bit about our house “Charmadoah” that overlooks the Shenandoah River. Again you are welcome to come visit us whenever in the area. Thank you for sending me your song. I will play it for others and it is a beautiful song,.

  3. Some say that shenandoah is a native American name for Spruce-covered; in Iowa there is a town called Shenandoah, and it is on the Missouri RIver. The song was a call-and-response river boatman’s chanty that evolved to be the beautiful ballad we know, evocative of the longing associated with something ideal we yearn for, inside us or something yet to be.

    • Bill….I am so sorry I missed you when you were in the area. I really regret that. I had hoped to meet you and be able to gather some friends for a little music. I hope my husband at least greeted you. It doesn’t sound like you got to sit on the back porch! To overlook the Shenandoah River…so sorry. Hope all is well with you and that your trip throughout the US was good.


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