Since its earliest days, Missouri has been represented in song. The range of song types has grown over the years and includes minstrel, country, rock, folk, Broadway musical, and true southern blues. Songs about Missouri have been recorded by a wide range of artists such as Johnny Cash, Glenn Miller, Sammy Kaye, and the Kingston Trio.

SHENANDOAH

Perhaps the earliest example of a song relating to Missouri and her mighty river is “Shenandoah,” a traditional ballad that is also widely known as, “Across the Wide Missouri.” Sung and played in countless settings for at least the last two centuries, its haunting tune and variable verses have been adapted as a sea shanty, logging song, parlor ballad, popular recording tune, and anthem of the early fur trade. And yet, as is common with most traditional songs, its origins remain a mystery.

According to eminent folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, the song probably began with the French Canadian voyageurs, some of whom canoed their way in the late seventeenth century to what is now Missouri, when it was occupied almost exclusively by the Osage and Missouria tribes. Not surprisingly, the lyrics came to reflect the “doings” of the fur trade. One of the earliest English language versions of the song tells the story of a fur trapper who courts the daughter of a chief named Shenandoah:

A trapper loved an Indian maiden.
Away, you rolling river!
With notions his canoe was laden.
Away, I’m bound away. ’Cross the wide Missouri.

Oh, Shenandoah, I love your daughter…
For her I’ve crossed the rolling water…

Over the past several decades, recordings of “Shenandoah” have been made by dozens of artists, including such disparate notables as Bruce Springsteen, Ray Price, Harry Belafonte, Eddy Arnold, and the Kingston Trio.

The spread of the song “Shenandoah” illustrates the importance of rivers in the development of American culture. Probably first sung by Canadian voyageurs traveling the river to sell furs, it spread to become a sea shanty before being covered by both Eddy Arnold, above, and Harry Belafonte, below.


JESSE JAMES

After the Civil War, Missouri spawned a plethora of miscreants whose deeds found their way into the history books. The most notorious of these were the brothers James—Frank and Jesse. It was customary to sing songs about the famous outlaws of the day, and one of America’s most widely sung folk ballads is the “Ballad of Jesse James.” The song was written shortly after Jesse’s murder, and the composer—a songster named Billy Gashade, possibly a Missourian—went out of his way to portray his subject in the Robin Hood mode:

Jesse James was a lad
Who killed many a man.
He robbed the Glendale train.
He took from the rich,
And he gave to the poor.
He’d a hand and a heart and a brain.

Similar songs were written about other noted Missouri highwaymen, including Jesse’s wartime comrade and sometime partner in crime, Cole Younger. None, however, achieved the popularity of the “Ballad of Jesse James.”

SWEET BETSY FROM PIKE

America in the late 1840s witnessed a gold strike in California that galvanized the nation. Westering immigrants by the countless thousands abandoned their day-to-day lives and headed to the West Coast by any means possible, in the hope of making their fortune. While those who could afford it traveled aboard ship around Cape Horn, others chose to make the cross-country journey by wagon. It was a long, arduous trek, punctuated alternately by boredom and peril.

The era inspired several songs, one of which—a Missouri original based on people from Pike County—has survived for nearly two centuries as a true American folk classic. “Sweet Betsy From Pike” tells the tongue-in-cheek saga of Betsy, her lover Ike, and a small menagerie of critters who cross what was then referred to as the “Great American Desert,” on the two-thousand-mile odyssey to California. The main characters—
especially Betsy herself—are larger-than-life: brazen, outspoken, and natural survivors. With time, the verses grew in number and absurdity. As with all folk songs, the song is grounded in reality, reflecting the actual hardships of such a journey. There are countless versions of both the verses and the chorus, and, like Ike and Sweet Betsy, they all follow their own trail! One version goes, in part:

Now don’t you remember Sweet Betsy from Pike,
Who crossed the big mountains with her lover, Ike.
With two yoke of oxen, a big yeller dog,
A tall Shanghai rooster and one spotted hog.

Chorus:
Hoodle dang fol de di do,
Hoodle dang fol de day.

They soon reached the desert where Betsy gave out.
Down in the sand she lay rollin’ about.
Ike, he gazed at her with sobs and with sighs;
Says he, “Get up, Betsy, you’ll get sand in your eyes.”

WALKING TO MISSOURI

Over the years, the state itself has been the subject of popular songs, such as band leader Sammy Kaye’s 1952 novelty number, “Walking to Missouri.” The first verse and chorus pretty well sum up the tone of the rest of the song:

I hope my story don’t make you cry
But this birdie flew too high;
He flew from his old Missouri home
He fell right into the city ways, like dancin’ in cabarets
From party to party he would roam…

Chorus:
Poor little robin walkin’, walkin’, walkin’ to Missouri;
He can’t afford to fly
Got a penny for a poor little robin, walkin’, walkin’, walkin’ to Missouri;
Got a teardrop in his eye.

To put the song in its proper context, it came from the same decade that gave the world Stan Freberg’s “Little Blue Riding Hood,” Phil Harris’s “The Thing,” and Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater.”

Sammy Kaye, who composed the 1952 novelty tune “Walking to Missouri,” was born in Ohio and grew up to become a recognizable face during the big band era.

SHOELESS JOE FROM HANNIBAL, MO.

“Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.” is a standout group number in 1955’s long-running, Tony-winning Broadway musical comedy, Damn Yankees. Equally captivating as a dance piece, the song contains such outlandish verses as,

Who came along in a puff of smoke?
Shoeless Joe from Hannibal MO!
Strong as the heart of a mighty oak?
Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO!

Go like a bat out of you know where!
Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO
Strike at the foe, let ’em know you’re there!
Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO

Came upon the scene
As fresh as Listerine!
He sneezed and blew away a calf!
His laughter ripped a barn in half! (Go, go, go, go, Joe!)
Like sevens-come-elevens come!
Like manna from the Heavens come!
It’s Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO!

A full-blown song-and-dance rendition was featured at the 1956 Tony Awards, where the musical won top honors in several categories.

The musical Damn Yankees is a modern retelling of the German Faust legend, and features the number “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal Mo.” about a home run-socking baseball player who appears to be the savior of the down-on-their luck Washington Senators.

THE MISSOURI WALTZ

Forty-nine of the fifty states have official state songs, with New Jersey being the only holdout. The choices are often surprising. Connecticut, for example, has adopted “Yankee Doodle” as its state song, while Maryland’s anthem still reflects a decidedly Confederate tone, referring to Abraham Lincoln as a tyrant, vandal, and despot, and advocating spurning the “Northern scum.” Missouri, on the other hand, offers the gently lilting “Missouri Waltz.”

Designated the official state song in 1949, its origins are shrouded in mystery. The most credible story has the tune, ominously known at the time as the “Graveyard Waltz,” written and played by Lee Edgar Settle, a noted ragtime pianist of the early twentieth century. Other accounts separately credit black musicians Dab Hannah and Henry Clay Cooper with creating the melody.

According to the Missouri Secretary of State’s website, the tune appeared in print in 1912. It was first recorded four years later by the Victor Military Band for the Victor label and subsequently by several other bands and orchestras. Inevitably, words were put to the tune, and the song was widely sung as “The Missouri Waltz.”

The original lyrics were composed by Irish-American lyricist James Royce Shannon. Shannon’s lyrics contain themes we associate with minstrel shows—romanticizing life in the South before the abolition of slavery, using terminology that today we understand to be offensive. The lyrics required a radical revision prior to its adoption as the state’s anthem. The pre-edited verses read like this:

Way down in Missouri where I heard this melody,
When I was a Pickaninny on ma Mammy’s knee;
The darkies were hummin’; their banjos were strummin’;
So sweet and low.
Hush-a-bye ma baby, go to sleep on Mammy’s knee,
Journey back to Dixieland in dreams again with me;
It seems like your Mammy was there once again,
And the darkies were strummin’ that same old refrain.

The revised version was updated to eliminate offensive terms. “Mammy” has become “Mommy,” while “pickaninny” has been replaced by “little child,” and the “darkies” are now the “old folks.”

When Harry S. Truman entered the White House in 1949, his Missouri origins gave rise to the folk tale that “The Missouri Waltz” was his favorite song. This could not have been further from the truth. At this time, the state legislature was still considering making it the state anthem, and the nation’s newspapers were anxious for Truman’s take on it. Inundated with queries from reporters, the White House finally issued a statement on the subject:

“President’s attitude towards the song? He can take it or leave it. Is it really his favorite? No. Does he play it often? No. Is Margaret ever heard singing it? No. What is the President’s reaction to song’s adoption by Missouri as state song? See answer to first question.”

And if this response wasn’t definitive enough for the reading public, Truman himself weighed in. Never one to mince words, he was crystal clear in a television interview that might have required a touch of early broadcast days censorship: “If you let me say what I think, I don’t give a — about it, but I can’t say it out loud because it’s the song of Missouri. It’s as bad as ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ as far as music is concerned.”

President Harry S. Truman, pictured here playing piano on a 1959 episode of The Jack Benny Program, famously did not care for either the national anthem or his home state’s official song.

Truman had a point; it is not the most mellifluous of songs. The tune is nothing special, and the verses don’t flow. In fact, one verse is particularly difficult to enunciate:

Strum, strum, strum, strum, strum,
Seems I hear those banjos playin’ once again,

Apparently, none of this has prevented several big-name singers, including Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Gene Autry, Eddy Arnold, the Fontane Sisters, and Johnny Cash, from recording it. A number of big-band orchestra leaders, such as Tommy Dorsey and Harry James, included it in their repertoires, and Glenn Miller reportedly played it every morning on his KRMS radio show.

Bandleader Glenn Miller grew up in Grant City and began playing the trombone around the time he was eleven years old. He would go on to become one of the most famous big band leaders of all time.

The song was reaffixed to popular understanding of Missouri for twenty-first century audiences when a version of it opened the 2010 film Winter’s Bone over images of bleak Ozark scenery. This version was recorded by West Plains resident Marideth Sisco specifically for the film.


Songs of and about Missouri display widely disparate styles, sophistication, and quality. Judged by today’s tastes and standards, some might seem silly, while others, like those descended from minstrel shows, reflect a past when casual racism was fodder for popular entertainment. But insofar as a musical heritage is concerned, Missouri is well represented. And there is always room for more. In “Songs About Missouri,” Show-Me State singer and songwriter Michael Tyler intones, “If they could’ve seen it through my eyes, there’d be more songs about Missouri.”

Perry Como, center, released his version of “The Missouri Waltz” in 1949 as a B-side to the single “Far Away Places” on RCA. Bing Crosby, left, cut a version that was released in 1939. Arthur Godfrey, right, never recorded a version.