My first guitar lesson happened in my dad’s tiny studio apartment (which, coincidentally, was behind my elementary school). I would have been about eight years old, maybe nine, between the time when my parents divorced and Dad married my stepmom. Under the dim lighting absorbed by the concrete walls, he shaped my hand into a C chord, my first three fingers stretching across the frets. This was the first chord of the old folk song and spiritual “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.” Although maybe it wasn’t a C chord – if it were, then I would have had to also play an F, and teaching grade schooler barre chords on their first lesson is just asking for trouble. Then again, maybe that’s why I didn’t pick up a guitar again until I was in high school.
Even if I don’t remember the chord, I remember the song. “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” had long been one of my favorite songs to sing at Vacation Bible School and the like, although there are actually few blatantly religious references in the lyrics. There’s “milk and honey,” “River Jordan” and “hallelujah,” but nothing that explicitly marks it as Christian. (And while, in retrospect, I can recognize that the “Michael” of the title is probably the archangel, I just thought of him as my also-named dad.) What stuck with me, though, was the music. Although I hadn’t yet studied music theory, I knew that it didn’t sound like many other songs. It was too sad, and the melody didn’t resolve itself in the most obvious way. Its closest relative was “Kumbaya,” but that song was too simplistic. “Michael,” despite being nothing but four chords and two melodic lines, never got boring or felt too cloying. Plus, it had boats in it. Kids love songs about boats (cf. “Barges,” “Day-O,” “Miss Susie Had a Steamboat”).
So, given all of this, The Highwaymen’s flat reading of the song is a disappointment. What should be soulful is overly somber, what should be graceful instead plods along mechanically. It doesn’t seem quite fair to ding them too harshly – this Wesleyan University group is clearly more professional, polished and technically proficient than most college kid folkies of the time (excepting Joan Baez). Still, if there’s one genre less concerned with professionalism, polish and technical proficiency than punk rock, then it’s folk. What counts is the way the performance makes you feel – and for this record, there’s little but a faint feeling of boredom. 4
- These Highwaymen should not be confused with the infinitely more kick-ass country supergroup comprising Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings.
Hit #1 on September 4, 1961; total of 2 week at #1
57 of 969 #1’s reviewed; 5.88% through the Hot 100