Rock About my Saro Jane

There's a lot of fake folk music about steamboats, but this seems to be the genuine. Uncle Dave Macon said he learned the song from African-American stevedores on the Cumberland River in the l880s.

In the mid-19th century, the Cumberland River supported a large riverboat trade which reached to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. There is no record of a steamboat called the McMillan, but the name might refer to McMillan’s Landing, which was a major steamboat landing on the upper Cumberland River in Monroe County, Kentucky. Monroe County strongly supported the Union during the Civil War and 800 men Monroe County men joined the Union army, compared to less than 30 joining the Confederacy.

As a Quaker and a pacifist, I don't normally like to sing verses that celebrate shooting people. But in this case the verse probably accurately represents the sentiments of African-American workers in that place and time. I wouldn't be right to leave it out.

Uncle Dave recorded 'Saro Jone' for Vocalion Records in 1927 and it was recorded again much later by the Kingston Trio, New Lost City Ramblers and Flatt And Scruggs.

I am grateful to Lyle Lofgren and William Lewis for background on this piece. Lyle has a wonderful collection of lyrics and song notes from his Inside Bluegrass column 'Remembering the Old Songs'. I highly recommend it.

Lyrics: 

I've got a wife and five little chillun
Believe I'll take a trip on the big MacMillan
Oh Saro Jane!

Oh, there's nothing to do but to set down and sing
And rock about, my Saro Jane.
Oh, rock about my Saro Jane
Oh, there's nothing to do but to set down and sing
And rock about, my Saro Jane.

Boiler busted and the whistle done blowed,
The head captain done fell overboard,
Oh Saro Jane!

Oh, there's nothing to do . . .

Engine gave a crack and the whistle gave a squall
The engineer gone to the hole in the wall
Oh Saro Jane!

Oh, there's nothing to do . . .

Yankees build boats for to shoot them rebels,
My musket's loaded and I'm gonna hold her level,
Oh Saro Jane!

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