The Story of 'Michael Row the Boat Ashore'

A Traditional Spiritual of Slaves That's Unforgettable

Rowboat on the shore of a lake at daytime.

Min An/Pexels

Among the most memorable songs in American folk music is "Michael Row the Boat Ashore." It is a song that most people know only the chorus to, but it's sung around campfires and in churches all across the country.

The story of this unforgettable song is intertwined with the history of America itself. It's believed to be a song of slaves, but it also has a connection to modern civil rights. "Michael Row the Boat Ashore" is a popular children's song because it is easy to learn and the melody is soft and sweet. Maybe it was one of the first songs you learned yourself. There is no doubt of its impact on countless generations.

History of 'Michael Row the Boat Ashore'

"Michael Row the Boat Ashore" is an old American folk song that hails from the slave era. It was sung through the years and, most notably, became a popular anthem during the civil rights movement. 

Its existence was first noted in the early 1860s, although the song itself is probably much older. The song was mentioned in letters between teachers and abolitionists, who heard it while on St. Helena Island in South Carolina.


Most people nowadays probably only know the refrain from this traditional song. It is a simple repeat of "Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah" sung twice. The full song, however, talks about crossing the River Jordan. The "Michael" in the song is probably the archangel Michael. It is believed that Michael helps ferry souls of the dead to heaven. 

The song was passed down orally long before it was ever recorded or written down. Because of this, there are many versions in circulation. Essentially, all variations of the lyrics describe finding God and one's family on the other side of the river in the promised land:

O the Lord he plant his garden there.
He raise the fruit for you to eat.
He that eat shall never die.
When the river overflow.

Pete Seeger noted that, since the song was found in the islands off South Carolina, it may be indicative of a work song that the slaves sang as they were rowing to the mainland. In the more mainstream version recorded by Seeger (purchase/download), he sings also of the familial calls of the song:

Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah
Sister help to trim the sail, hallelujah


Several popular versions of "Michael Row the Boat Ashore" have been recorded through the years. In addition to Pete Seeger's version, the song has also been recorded by Harry Belafonte (purchase/download), Peter, Paul, and Mary, and the Nields (purchase/download).