Shenandoah Crooning

Published:May 28, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe

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“Down in the Vale of Shenandoah” was a popular song from 1904. Its composer was Charles K. Harris, King of the Tear-Jerkers, who despite being a native of Poughkeepsie, New York, seemed to like writing about Virginia. His song “Mid the Green Fields of Virginia” reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts—in 1899.

(I’m assuming that the charts back then were tracking sheet music.)

Anyway, the recorded version of “Down in the Vale of Shenandoah” was released by the Victor Talking Machine Company and is crooned by one Harry MacDonough, whose real name, it turns out, was John S. MacDonald. MacDonald was actually an executive at Victor and liked to keep on the down low his stint singing outrageously melodramatic popular songs. So he took the alias Harry MacDonough, which happened to be the real name of a major New York comedian. Oops. MacDonald sent a letter of apology to the real MacDonough but, curiously, continued to use the name.

As for the recording itself, it’s scratchy, yes, but you might enjoy the plodding oom-pah of the tuba and the singing birds and the introductory pizazz. And we should thank the Cyclinder Preservation and Digitization Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara, which makes it possible for us, when we’re bored, to type “Virginia” into their search engine. (What’s a cylinder, you ask?)

The lyrics represent a typical sentimentalization of the Shenandoah Valley by someone who, apparently, had to inquire of the office superintendent whether corn was grown there. “My imagination did the rest,” Harris said.

As our entry on the Shenandoah Valley During the Civil War suggests, such sentimental attachments go way back:

By 1860, and thanks in part to antebellum travel and adventure literature, plantation fiction, and romantic landscape art, the Shenandoah Valley was already a unique and “Southern” place in popular imagination. Its associations were arcadian: admirers called it a place of unrivaled beauty, pastoral tranquility, and plenteous abundance. Those associations were given vital force in the war’s early years by the exploits of such Confederate heroes as Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and Turner Ashby; in fact, one historian has suggested that the Valley possessed a revitalizing power for Confederate soldiers and civilians alike.

Finally, speaking of the Victor company, read our entry about the song “The Wreck of the Old 97,” released by RCA Victor in 1924 and the subject of “the first major lawsuit involving copyright.”