Thursday, April 2, 2009

Erie Canal song/"Low Bridge"

On pages 88-91, I discuss Thomas Allen's famous song, "Low Bridge" (also known as "Fifteen Years on the Erie Canal"). The Erie Canal was the single biggest factor that led to the invention of the first mechanized grain elevator by Robert Dunbar and Joseph Dart in 1843: the grain elevator was originally built to transship large quantities of grain in bulk coming from lake vessels to boats small enough to navigate through the canal. In fact, if you can tolerate the excruciating sincerity of the version of the song in this particular video, you will see -- at precisely 1:04 in, behind the caption that reads "The Importance of Waterways" -- an illustration that depicts the Erie Basin Elevator, built in Buffalo, New York, in 1854. Clearly based upon a photograph, the illustration shows the elevator's marine tower, from which the marine leg has been extended into the hull of a lake steamer. Canal boats stand ready in the foreground.

The echoes that the song stirs, indeed, the song's very popularity, in all of its many versions, indicates the centrality of the Erie Canal to American history. But, despite appearances -- or, if you will, despite Bruce Springsteen, who like so many people mistake the tone of the song to be "authentic" and sincere -- the song wasn't written in 1840, as one might expect ("fifteen years on the Erie Canal" could be 15 years after the Canal opened in 1825). In fact, the song was written in 1905, two years after the Erie Canal was scrapped and work on its replacement, the New York State Barge Canal, had begun. It's tone is not nostalgic or sentimental: it is dry and ironic.

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