Erie Canal

arr. Paul Jennings

The Erie Canal played an important part in the history of America's early western movement. Originally proposed in 1808, it stretched across New York state, going all the way to Buffalo on Lake Erie. The basic canal was finished by 1825, though it was expanded several times during the next century. It was 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide, and floated boats carrying up to 30 tons of freight. A 10 foot wide towpath was built along the bank of the canal for horses, mules, and oxen led by a boy driver or "hoggee." Other canals connected it to Lake Ontario, and thanks to the Ohio-Erie canals, freight could travel from the East Coast to the Great Lakes, down through Ohio to the Ohio River, and even to the Mississippi and west.

As with the roadways today, settlements grew up around the canals, and folklore grew out of the life on the canal. Part of that folklore included a number of songs that told of life on the canal and the work that grew out of it. "Erie Canal" (sometimes referred to as "Low Bridge, Everybody Down" or "Fifteen Miles On The Erie Canal") is probably the best known of these songs, though it was popular at the turn of the 20th century, well after the heyday of the canals.

We have arranged it for unison voices, using a rollicking, sometimes bluesy folk style. To accentuate this in the recording, we have combined acoustic bass, guitars, dobro, and the talents of our intrepid harmonica soloist, Mike Runyon. Be sure to let your singers hear the accompaniment tracks so they can identify the various instruments.

Musically, it is fairly straightforward, though there are a number of words in some of the measures, so enunciation is important. Just reading through the lyrics rhythmically and discussing the meanings of the lyrics will help here.

Discuss the history behind the song, and be sure to share this song with other teachers in your school(s) as this will fit nicely into historical units. Here are a few concepts to discuss:

  • Imagine a time when traveling 15 miles a day was a major accomplishment. What methods of transportation did they use in the 1800s? How do we carry our freight from place to place today? If you are eating an orange, how far may it have traveled to get to you?
  • Imagine life for a boy or girl whose family drove a boat for a living. Imagine walking many miles a day while guiding a mule or ox. What challenges would you meet trying to do this year-round in upstate New York or northern Ohio?

Be sure to check our richly abundant web site,, for links to educational sites and for a list of other resources, including books you can share with your students.

Text is taken from Music K-8 magazine.