New York Series: ‘The Erie Canal Song’

As we approach the bicentennial of the Erie Canal in 2025, let’s look back at this marvel of modern engineering. Not only did the Canal transform much of Upstate New York, but it also transformed folk music. While known by many names since its composition, “The Erie Canal Song” has become a staple of the American folk songbook. With lyrics reflecting life on the canal, and the changes it brought to the state, it proves a useful tool for exploring New York’s history. 

Erie Canal Song
Before the Days of Rapid Transit, Edward Lamson Henry (1841-1919) c.1900 Pencil and watercolor, ht.13 3/4′ x w.34 3/4″ Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase, 1976.7.2

The year is 1807, and the United States is slowly expanding into The Northwest Territories (or what is now the Midwest). This region was rich in the grain and metals needed to supply populations on the East Coast. The only issue was that transporting these resources to the East Coast commercial hubs was difficult to say the least. The Appalachian mountains provided a massive barrier for mule trains, with the journey from New York City to Detroit taking four weeks. 

New York was specifically poised to tackle this transportation issue. The Hudson River was the main artery of trade for New York, connecting commercial Manhattan to the capital in Albany. Of the Hudson’s many tributaries, the Mohawk River proved to be the most important. Flowing eastward from Oneida County, it cut a low valley through the Appalachians, the only valley of its kind in the Northeast. Because of this, Governor DeWitt Clinton authorized the construction of a canal along this route in 1817.

Map showing Present and Proposed Canal System, to accompany report of Edward A. Bond, State Engineer and Surveyor of N.Y. (from:Annual report of the State Engineer and Surveyor of the State of New York, for the fiscal year ending September 30, 1903 (Oliver A. Quayle, Albany, 1904) — facing p. 60)

Following eight years of disease, construction accidents, and hard manual labor, the Canal was opened in 1825. The canal was 4 feet deep, 40 feet wide, and spanned 363 miles from Albany to Buffalo. With the construction of the canal, boats could travel from the Hudson River to Lake Erie in less than five days. While many were originally skeptical of the canal, it soon proved its worth. Completed ahead of schedule, and under-budget, the canal paid itself off with tolls in under ten years.

The Erie Canal was one of the first great highways of the United States, bringing goods, ideas, and most importantly people across New York. The Canal revolutionized the economy of Upstate New York, practically creating the cities we know today. In 1817, Buffalo was a village of 2,000 people recently destroyed by the British. Canal commerce turned Buffalo into the world’s premier grain hub, with the city growing into the 9th largest metropolis in the US. Cities sprang up all along the canal route. Hamlets like Rochester, Syracuse, and Schenectady grew into cities with hundreds of thousands of residents, and national centers of industry. 

“The most fertile and extensive regions of America will avail themselves of its facilities for a market … [and New York City] will, in the course of time, become the granary of the world, the emporium of commerce, the seat of manufactures, the focus of great moneyed operations.”

– DeWitt Clinton, Governor of New York
Thomas S. Allen

On top of having such economic importance, the canal quickly became a cultural symbol of New York. To many, the canal symbolized their identity as Upstaters, and hope for a prosperous future. One person enamored by the legendary canal was Natick, Massachusetts’s Thomas S. Allen. Allen recalled, “When a boy in school, a picture of the Erie Canal in a Geography attracted my attention and I exclaimed: ‘If I ever see the Eric Canal, I’ll think I’ve seen something worth seeing.'” Sometime around 1910, when traveling to Rochester, Allen finally saw the canal, and immediately knew he had to write a song about it.

It turns out Allen was somewhat of a 1900s musical renaissance man. He was foremost a violinist, playing everywhere from professional orchestras to burlesque shows. On top of this, he directed Vaudeville shows, composing songs for them in the Tin Pan Alley tradition. Throughout his career, he published nine songs under his name, including “The Erie Canal Song.” Originally published in 1913 by Manhattan’s F.B. Haviland Publishing Co, the song was titled “Low Bridge, Everybody Down.” The song looked back to the work of mule barges along the canal.

Erie Canal Song

At the time of its publishing, New York was constructing the Barge Canal System, a mechanized successor to the Erie Canal. Newer diesel and steam powered barges carried much of the cargo down these new canals. Allen’s writing harkened back to a simpler time of mule-drawn ships on the Erie Canal. “We’ve hauled some barges in our day, filled with lumber, coal and hay. And every inch of the way I know, From Albany to Buffalo.” These lines also highlight some of the major midwestern resources that would have flowed Eastward through the canal. Grain and ore were the two specifically that allowed cities like Buffalo to become breadbaskets, and industrial hubs of the East.

The lyrics while romanticizing life on the canal, also speak to the hardships it brought. The repeated chorus “low bridge everybody down,” reflects just one of these difficulties. Nearing the fledgling cities along the canal, extremely low bridges were common obstacles for barges. The cover for the song’s original sheet music depicts this, with the narrator ducking down on his mule to pass under one such bridge. In reality, however, these bridges were bigger dangers for barge passengers. Passengers on barges would commonly ride on top when conditions allowed, having to quickly get down to safely pass under these bridges.

Erie Canal Song
Lift Bridge and Canal St., Canastota, N.Y. — Postcard ; not postmarked ; another slightly variant copy is postmarked Sep. 19, 1907. [CSNYS 1096.1.0890]

The song’s lyrics also play into the themes of hardiness that would fit perfectly in a Spaghetti Western. The lyrics repeatedly mention Sal the Mule’s fighting spirit. Throughout the song Sal brawls her way across the state, sending Mike McGinty to the bottom of the canal, and kicking a man all the way to Buffalo. All of this fighting occurs during the narrator’s 15 years of hard work along the canal. This story of hardy enterprise and masculine bravado call to mind the Wild West. One could easily imagine these stories of barging and brawling taking place in a classic Eastwood or Wayne movie. This makes sense remembering that at the canal’s completion, Upstate New York very much was the “Wild West.”

Since its original composition in 1913, “Low Bridge” has become a folk standard, being performed by countless artists. The first known recording we have of the song is by Billy Murray (not to be confused with actor Bill Murray) from 1912. Murray was a star Tenor of the early 1900s, recording many vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley tracks. This recording is now featured in the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox and Recorded Sound Section.

Aiding in the Canal’s place in American mythology was a recording by folk legend Pete Seeger. Seeger included “The Erie Canal” as track #10 on his 1954 album Frontier Ballads. This album celebrated the stories of workers, and settlers who traveled westward through the new territories of the United States. This album places the Erie Canal alongside stories of Cowboys and railroad workers, placing it firmly within the canon of Americana, and further cementing its Western connection.

Perhaps the latest great recording of “The Erie Canal Song” came from rock legend Bruce Springsteen, as part of his 2006 album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. This album included Springsteen’s interpretations of 13 folk and Americana classics popularized by Pete Seeger. Because of this, this version is moreso a Springsteen cover of Seeger’s version, rather than a direct reimagining of the original. The album, including “Erie Canal” shot to number 3 on the billboard top 100, also earning Springsteen a Grammy for best folk album.

Since its publishing 111 years ago, “The Erie Canal Song” has become an icon of American folk music. Not only have massive stars covered it over the years, but it has also really lived up to the definition of folk music, and spread to the masses. Reading comments on the YouTube video of Seeger’s version you see nothing but fond memories. Whether it’s people who learned it as kids in school, or sang it with their grandparents, the song holds an important place in the collective American cultural memory.

On top of all of this, the song speaks to the role the Erie Canal plays in American imagination. It singlehandedly built upstate New York, and connected the country more than it had ever been before. More than just this, it represents a time long gone, where the Wild West wasn’t so far west. Its no wonder why when many people think of New York, they think of the Erie Canal.

“The Erie Canal Song” Lyrics:

I’ve got an old mule, and her name is Sal, Fifteen years on the Erie Canal

She’s a good old worker and a good old pal, Fifteen years on the Erie Canal

We’ve hauled some barges in our day, filled with lumber, coal and hay.

And every inch of the way I know, From Albany to Buffalo

Low bridge, everybody down, Low bridge, we must be getting near a town.

You can always tell your neighbor; you can always tell your pal.

If he’s ever navigated on the Erie Canal

We’d better look ’round for a job old gal, Fifteen years on the Erie Canal

You bet your life I wouldn’t part with Sal, Fifteen years on the Erie Canal

Giddyap there gal we’ve passed that lock, we’ll make Rome ‘fore six o-clock

So one more trip and then we’ll go, Right straight back to Buffalo

Low bridge, everybody down, Low bridge, I’ve got the finest mule in town

Once a man named Mike McGinty tried to put it over Sal

Now he’s way down at the bottom of the Erie Canal

Oh, where would I be if I lost my pal? Fifteen years on the Erie Canal

Oh, I’d like to see a mule as good as Sal, Fifteen years on the Erie Canal

A friend of mine once got her sore, Now, he’s got a broken jaw.

Cause she let fly with her iron toe and kicked him into Buffalo.

Low bridge, everybody down, Low bridge, I’ve got the finest mule in town.

If you’re looking ’round for trouble, better stay away from Sal.

She’s the only fighting donkey on the Erie Canal

I don’t have to call when I want my Sal, Fifteen years on the Erie Canal

She trots from her stall like a good old gal, Fifteen years on the Erie Canal

I eat my meals with Sal each day, I eat beef and she eat hay.

She isn’t so slow if you want to know, she put the “Buff” in Buffalo

Low bridge, everybody down, Low bridge, I’ve got the finest mule in town

Eats a bale of hay for dinner, and on top of that, my Sal.

Tries to drink up all the water in the Erie Canal

You’ll soon hear them sing everything about my gal, Fifteen years on the Erie Canal

It’s a darned fool ditty ’bout my darned fool Sal, Fifteen years on the Erie Canal

Oh, every band will play it soon, Darned fool words and darned fool tune!

You’ll hear it sung everywhere you go, from Mexico to Buffalo

Low bridge, everybody down, Low bridge, I’ve got the finest mule in town.

She’s a perfect, perfect lady, and she blushes like a gal.

If she hears you sing about her and the Erie Canal

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