Songs are passed down from generation to generation with the origin of many pop tunes stemming from folk culture. Those with the greatest impact are Negro spirituals whose history and origins are generally obscure—slaves didn't usually write things down, and their masters rarely thought slave songs were worth investigating. In the spotlight today is a college group who revived one of the plantation spirituals that predates the Civil War.
The Highwaymen Singing in high school as a doo-wop group was just the beginning for Dave Fisher who joined with four other Wesleyan university freshmen — Bob Burnett, Steve Butts, Chan Daniels, and Steve Trott — to form the Highwaymen. They had a Billboard #1 hit in 1961 with 'Michael', a version of the 19th century African-American spiritual Michael, Row the Boat Ashore. The song's success spread around the world, to the tune of five million sales earning it a gold record making it a pop culture phenomenon like another folk tune of the same era, 'Tom Dooley'. Another Top 20 hit for The Highwaymen occurred in 1962 with 'Cotton Fields'.
NOTE: This group is not to be confused with the country supergroup Highwaymen, made up of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson, active between 1985 and 1995.
1961 The Highwaymen were at No.1 on the UK singles chart with 'Michael'. The US group's only UK Top 40 hit. The Highwaymen were US college students who broke up when they graduated.
A Tidbit of 'Michael' History...Steve Trott, who played mandolin and guitar for the group and later made a career as a federal appeals court judge, explained that "Michael" was such a big hit because Fisher "put a couple of minor chords into it that hadn't been there before, and that made all the difference." Fisher told banjo player Steve Butts to whistle "and that was it. It took about 15 minutes," Trott added in a tribute to their lead singer after he passed away. "He did that all the time. He had this touch for folk music that was remarkable."
"Michael Row the Boat Ashore" is a rowing song. That's not as obvious as it sounds. "Michael" is the only rowing song we know about that's actually about boats. It was first mentioned in 1863 as a song sung by black slaves in the Georgia Sea Islands. Pete Seeger, in The Incompleat Folksinger, mentions that slaves brought from Africa spent their lives on these small islands, out of touch with mainland life. "The only transportation was small boats and strong arms to row them," he writes. The boat crews from different plantations would have their own rowing songs, each song exclusive to the plantation. "Michael" is mentioned in the letters of some teachers who went to the islands in 1862-63.
And the music goes on beating to the rhythm of the changing times...