Boatman's Dance, The


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Boatman's Dance, The

[Alternately: “(De) Boatman Dance,” “(De) Boatmen’s Dance,” “Boatman ob de Ohio,” “Dance the Boatman,” “Dance, Boatman, Dance,” “Dance of the Water Boatman”]

To listen to this song (and others) on the Artists Respond to Juba Site, Click Here.

According to Hans Nathan, the words of the chorus would have been known to Ohio boatmen in the 1820s and 1830s; Emmett was responsible for composing the verses and the refrain (291). First published in 1843 as “Boatman’s Dance” the song became immensely popular and, along with its variants, appears to be one of the most widely published minstrel songs of the period. Of the versions surveyed for this entry, there appears to be a moderate amount of variation in the lyrical setting, mostly with regard to the number of verses. The use of a third-person narrator describing the behaviour of a singular, convivial boatman is consistent. As Mahar notes in his commentary on the song, one of its more interesting features is its tag line – “hi, ho, de boatman row, etc.” – (distinct from the chorus) which was positioned variously, depending upon the published edition and therefore likely the troupe performing the song (252-3).

While quite popular during the period this did not endure into the twentieth century. Aaron Copland included the song in Set 1 of his Old American Songs (1950). During the 1990s and the first decade of this millennium the song has been recorded a number of times, mostly by folk artists and groups. Today, the song is generally considered to be a part of the American folk-song canon.

Select Recording History:

  • “Dance, Boatman, Dance.” The Smothers Brothers. The Songs and Comedy of the Smothers Brothers! Mercury, 1964.

  • “Boatman Dance.” Elizabeth Cotten. Shake Sugaree, Vol. 2. Smithsonian Folkways, 1965.

  • “De Boatmen’s Dance.” Mark Gardner & Rex Rideout. Frontier Favourites: Old Time Music of the Wild-West. Palmetto Productions, 1997.

  • “De Boatman’s Dance.” Robert Winans, music director and program consultant. The Early Minstrel Show. New World Records, 1998.

  • “The Boatmen’s Dance.” US Army Field Soldiers’ Band Chorus. The Legacy of Aaron Copland. Altissimo, 2006.

    Works Cited:

  • Mahar, William J. Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture. Chicago: Illinois UP, 1999.

  • Nathan, Hans. Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy. Norman: Oklahoma UP, 1962.

    Mark Turner

  • Media: 
    Sheet Music Cover
    Sheet Music Cover #2
    Audio File - Minstrels in the Parlour

    Performance(s) listed of this act

    Performer(s) Troupe Event and Venue

    Sullivan, Yankee
    Yankee Sullivan Concert, 22 Feb. 1844 - 22 Feb. 1844
    Bower Saloon, Yorkshire: West Riding
    American Southern Minstrels Dramatic, 29 Mar. 1844 - 29 Mar. 1844
    Royal Amphitheatre/Royal Adelphi Theatre, Yorkshire: West Riding

    Negro Entertainment Troupe (Sheffield, 44) Dramatic, 11 Nov. 1844 - 11 Nov. 1844
    Theatre Royal, Sheffield, Yorkshire: West Riding
    American Southern Minstrels Variety, 03 Feb. 1845 - 08 Feb. 1845
    Astley's Royal Amphitheatre, London (city-county)
    Virginia Minstrels, The (1844) Minstrel Show, 20 Aug. 1845 - 20 Aug. 1845
    Bower Saloon, Yorkshire: West Riding

    Germon, Francis
    Ethiopian Serenaders (1846-48) Minstrel Show, 24 Feb. 1846 - 24 Feb. 1846
    Gloucester House, Piccadilly, London (city-county)
    Minstrel Show, 22 Apr. 1846 - 22 Apr. 1846
    Crosby Hall, London (city-county)

    Coleman, Lewin Y.
    Robinson, Joseph
    Coleman, Lewin Y. Vocal Entertainment, 22 Apr. 1846 - 22 Apr. 1846
    Concert Hall, Lancashire
    Minstrel Show, 01 May. 1846 - 01 May. 1846
    Crosby Hall, London (city-county)
    Minstrel Show, 04 May. 1846 - 09 May. 1846
    St. James Theatre, London (city-county)
    Minstrel Show, 11 May. 1846 - 11 May. 1846
    Crosby Hall, London (city-county)

    Roberts, B.
    Ethiopian Harmonists (1847-?) Minstrel Show, 15 Nov. 1847 - 19 Nov. 1847
    Concert Hall, Lancashire