The “what’s your all-time favorite song?” question is an almost impossible question for me to answer. I can usually only answer with my top 5 or split it by genres, and always with a disclaimer that my lists of favorites always change. There are only a few songs that are consistently top favorites and one of those songs is the American folk song “Shenandoah”.
“Shenandoah” is by far my absolute favorite folk/traditional song (from anywhere) and it is, and always will be, a constant in my list of Top 5 All-Time Favorite Songs. I constantly joke that I have “a love affair” with the song because I love literally every single arrangement/rendition of it that I’ve heard. And so, I’d like to share 10 of my favorite versions of the tune.
But first a little history: The exact origin of Shenandoah is uncertain but it can be determined that it has been around since at least the 19th century. It was first printed as part of Capt. Robert Chamblet Adams’ article “Sailors’ Songs“, in the April 1876 issue of The New Dominion Monthly, and had become a popular sea chanty by the 1880s. The book Sea Songs and Shanties, Collected by W.B. Whall, Master Mariner states that the song probably originated from American or Canadian voyagers.
As with many folk songs, there are many different sets of lyrics and many different interpretations of the song’s meaning. One of the most popular interpretations tells the story of a roving trader who falls in love with the daughter of a Native American chief and is intent on taking the daughter with him west of the Missouri River. Other interpretations tell of a pioneer’s nostalgia for the Shenandoah River Valley in Virginia, or of a Confederate soldier in the Civil War who dreams of his Virginia home.
Missy’s 10 favorite versions of “Shenandoah”
listen to the playlist here
1. Arrangement by Stacey V. Gibbs, performed by the 2011 MVHS Chorale
This arrangement is quite possibly my absolute favorite. This was performed in my senior year of high school by the advanced Chorale that I was a part of and, let me tell you, performing this was an incredible musical experience. This arrangement is just so beautiful and evokes such emotion in me that I had to keep from crying while singing it, and it still never fails to move me to tears. I could go on and on gushing about this arrangement, so I’ll stop here, but I don’t know if I can ever really put into words how much this version means to me.
2. Arrangement by Derric Johnson, performed by the Disney Parks’ Voices of Liberty
I would consider this arrangement a very close second to the Gibbs arrangement as my favorite. The immaculate blending of the voices, the intricate harmonies, and the very end where all the voices flawlessly slide up to that final note gives me chills every time.
3. Arrangement by James Erb, performed by the US Air Force Singing Sergeants
I performed this arrangement in college and what I love about this particular one is the round between the first sopranos, second sopranos, and altos to give the image of the ever-flowing river. The rich, textured harmonies behind the soprano’s melody line, just before the round, are also gorgeous.
4. Arrangement by Rollo Dilworth, performed by the Florida All-State Concert Chorus
This arrangement is actually a very recent favorite of mine. It’s an upbeat, unique arrangement with its syncopated phrasing and jazz and gospel influences, which is right up my alley. “Shenandoah” is not usually a song that makes you want to groove but that’s exactly what this arrangement does, and I love it.
5. Arrangement by Andrew York, performed by the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet
This arrangement evokes the image of a flowing river/water masterfully with the multiple guitar lines that sound like trickling water. And, of course, I’m a sucker for gorgeous harmonies and this version is full of them.
6. Performed by Hayley Westenra
This was actually the first recording of Shenandoah that I ever heard and it is what fostered my strong love for this song. Hayley’s gorgeous clear voice, accompanied by the soaring strings, is almost cinematic. I will always be very fond of this version.
7. Arrangement by Keith Kenniff, performed by Keith Kenniff (under the moniker Goldmund)
Like the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet’s version, this gorgeous arrangement for piano and guitar does a wonderful job evoking the song’s imagery of water as the piano takes on the sound of trickling water while the guitar plays the melody. There’s a haunting quality to this recording that works perfectly.
8. Performed by Youn Sun Nah
This version by South Korean jazz singer Youn Sun Nah is sublime to say the least. The beginning of the song, in which Youn Sun Nah sings softly a capella before being joined by the acoustic guitar, is tender yet earnest. In addition to her clear, beautiful voice, I also really enjoy the guitar solo.
9. Arranged by Conrad Susa, performed by the Kansas City Chorale
I adore the soft beginning of this arrangement but what is of particular interest is the unique harmonies. This arrangement goes interesting and different places, musically, than many of the other popular versions and does so gorgeously.
10. Arranged by John Williams, performed by the Boston Pops Orchestra
This sweeping arrangement begins very light and airy, accumulates to a soaring climax, and evokes the feeling of flying over the Shenandoah River and Valley. It also reminds me of Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the Disney theme park attraction Soarin’ Over California and, considering my intense love for that score as well, that is high praise.
Of course, these are more versions that I adore and even more for me to discover and fall in love with. But no matter the arrangement, the reason that I love this song so much lies in its simple beauty. At its core, it speaks to me in that ethereal way that only music can, and it is because of that that this song will forever remain one of my absolute favorites.