Michael Row


Michael Row the Boat Ashore is an African American spiritual. The earliest record of the song was during the American Civil War, although the song is almost certainly much older. Slave owners on St. Helena Island off the South Carolina coast had abandoned their plantations before the Union navy arrived to enforce a blockade. The former slaves who continued to live there as freedmen were heard singing the song.

There are many versions and layers of meaning of songs that originated in oral tradition. This song has the traits of a work song in which the pulse of the music benefits the rowing rhythm. It also fits the category of spirituals, with references to biblical characters and images.

I brought bits of the song’s background and my own experience to the task of writing this piece. What I didn’t realize was how poignantly it would express my own journey as a white American and father of our adopted African American daughter.

Shortly after finishing the first draft of the piece in 2014, I set it aside for a while until revisiting it early in 2020. Almost simultaneously, three significant events occurred: our daughter gave birth to a son; the Black Lives Matter marches spread across the world in response to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers; and U.S. Congressman John Lewis died, eliciting tributes and documentaries of this American civil rights icon. The specific spotlight on our country’s long history of police brutality against unarmed black men suddenly became a personal issue for the safety and life of our grandson and his father.

The call is strong and loud, and ringing around the world: It is not enough to say I am not racist. Those words only ring true if I choose to be anti-racist.

Michael Row is not simply a choral poem of this African American spiritual/slave song. It is a call to myself and to others: Get in the boat. Share the oars with the millions of people of color who have been rowing against the tide for centuries. It’s not enough to wish them well. There’s room in this boat for everyone. There’s room on that shore for everyone.

Peter Robb

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Voicing: SSATBB
Duration: 4'15"
Level: MA
Instrumentation: Piano

With visceral word painting and wonderful moments for every voice, including the piano, “Michael Row” is a musical voyage for singers, pianists, and audiences alike. A surprising, deeply satisfying reimagining of this familiar tune. 


Text adapted by Peter Robb

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, allelu
Michael row the boat ashore, Alleluia
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, allelu

Sister help to trim the sail
Brother, Father, Mother
River Jordan is so cold
Chills the body, but warms the soul

Brother, Sister, Mother, Father

The River is so wide
Milk and honey on the other side
Alle, alleluia, allelu, alleluia
Michael row the boat ashore

Michael Row the Boat Ashore
Familiar version recorded by many artists in 1950’s – 60’s

Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah
Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah

Sister help to trim the sail, hallelujah
Sister help to trim the sail, hallelujah

River Jordan is chilly and cold, hallelujah
Chills the body but not the soul, hallelujah

Jordan river is deep and wide, hallelujah
Milk and honey on the other side, hallelujah

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NOTE: Live performance coming. This temporary recording features instruments on vocal parts.