Erie Canal Song – Lyrics, Music, History, Videos and more

NOTE – I’ve been singing this song with groups of kids and adults for 25 years now, researching its history as I travel across NYS. Enjoy!  

Following is as much information as we know about the iconic song “Low Bridge! – Everybody Down,” including:

  • Original copyrighted lyrics
  • Sheet music
  • Common myths about the song (there are many!)
  • Song origins and history
  • Audio and video samples
  • Notes on singing the song with school kids

15 Miles on the Erie Canal lyrics and historyOriginal Copyrighted Lyrics for “The Erie Canal Song”

As originally copyrighted in 1912 and 1913, “Low Bridge! – Everybody Down” has five verses and five choruses!

Print or download the original lyrics here

Low Bridge! – Everybody Down
or, Fifteen Years On The Erie Canal

Words and music by Thomas S. Allen

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 ev’ry inch of the way I know, From Albany to Buffalo

Chorus: Low bridge, ev’rybody 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
Giddap 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

Chorus: Low bridge, ev’rybody 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

15 miles on the erie canal lyrics and history - dave ruchOh, 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

Chorus: Low bridge, ev’rybody 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 eats hay
She ain’t so slow if you want to know, She put the “Buff” in Buffalo

Chorus: Low bridge, ev’rybody 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

The erie canal song, or 15 Miles on the Erie CanalYou’ll soon hear them sing all 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

Chorus: Low bridge, ev’rybody 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.

Printable lyrics

Sheet Music

Following is a link to the original sheet music. Please note that the final page, which contains verses 3-5, was left out of this PDF scan, but all musical notation is included.

15 Years on the Erie Canal songLow Bridge! – Everybody Down: original sheet music

15 Miles on the Erie Canal: Common Myths

It’s called “The Erie Canal Song”

It’s not. As originally copyrighted, it’s called “Low Bridge! – Everybody Down (or Fifteen Years on the Erie Canal).”

The refrain is “Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal”

The refrain, as originally copyrighted, is “Fifteen years on the Erie Canal.” The first appearance of “Fifteen miles” in print is 1926. (See timeline below.)

The refrain is “16 miles on the Erie Canal,” or “16 years on the Erie Canal”

See above.

Fifteen miles was the common distance a mule or horse would work before resting

This is “a falsehood made up to explain a falsehood,” says Dan Ward, former curator at The Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse NY. Animals typically worked in six hour shifts, which could mean anywhere from 3-20+ miles depending on several factors including the number of locks they encountered and the volume of traffic.

The song has two (or three) verses

The song has five original verses as copyrighted. (See above.)

The chorus repeats after every verse

The song has five choruses – they change after each verse, and only the first chorus mentions “your neighbor” and “your pal.”

The song was sung by the people who built (or worked on) the Erie Canal in the horse and mule days

It’s impossible to say*. Prior to its copyrighted date in manuscript form (1912), there is no printed reference to the song or to the lyrics “Low bridge, everybody down,” though a handful of individuals (detailed below in the timeline) reported having heard the song as early as 1900**.

History of the erie canal songBy the copyright date of 1912, the canal had been enlarged twice and mechanized, with steam engines supplanting most of the horse and mule power. It’s possible that nobody hummed or sang the song on the 19th-century towpath, though there were certainly other canal songs in circulation then.

* see “Did Allen really write the song?” below for some questions on this

** many thanks to Buffalo musician Tyler Bagwell for turning up these references, and for his ongoing scholarship on the song and its origins. His work has informed this page greatly.

Low Bridge, Everybody Down: Origins and History

The song first appeared in print as “Low Bridge! – Everybody Down” (subtitled “Fifteen Years on the Erie Canal”) and was credited to composer Thomas S. Allen (1876-1919) of Natick, Massachusetts. Allen is said to have originally written it sometime between 1905-1912,

Allen’s song was copyrighted by F.B. Haviland Publishing Company in manuscript form in November of 1912, appearing in sheet music form early the following year (© Jan. 11, 1913; 2 c. Jan. 13, 1913: E 301302).

Thomas S Allen, 15 Miles on the Erie CanalThomas S. Allen was a musical jack-of-all trades, working at various stages of his career (and often simultaneously) as an orchestral violinist, “trick” violinist for burlesque and vaudeville shows, music director for theaters and traveling shows, and composer of songs for the vaudeville stage as well as rags, marches, waltzes, and other items for popular and commercial use.

The year “Low Bridge!” was first registered (1912), it was just one of nine songs copyrighted in Thomas S. Allen’s name.

Copyrighted songs of Thomas S Allen, author of Low Bridge Everybody DownTitles to other Allen pieces include “Any Rags,” “Whip and Spur,” “Scissors to Grind,” “Dixie Rube,” “By the Watermelon Vine (Lindy Lou),” “Good-Bye Mister Greenback,” and “Big Chief Battle-Axe.”

“Low Bridge! – Everybody Down” is, by far, his most enduring composition.

Did Allen really write the song?

It’s very hard to be certain. He’s quoted in the original record slip for Edward Meeker’s 1913 recording as follows:

Erie Canal Song - lyrics, sheet music, history

Thanks to Bill Hullfish for uncovering this reference.

However, a 1928 Music Trade Review article gave me some reason to believe that the song may have been in use prior to 1912, and perhaps even before Allen’s 1905 composition date:

Erie Canal Folk Song history

Music Trade Review, June 23, 1928

“Low Bridge” is thematically unlike any other song in Allen’s stable. Did he simply appropriate some lyrics and a theme that were already in use on the canal, embellish them, and claim them as his own as so many others have done through the years?

The Lawsuit

After the song appeared in Sigmund Spaeth’s 1926 folk song collection “Read ’em and Weep, The Songs You Forgot to Remember” as a public domain song (and with the refrain “Fifteen miles – rather than years – on the Erie Canal),” Thomas Allen’s publishing company sued Spaeth’s publishing house (Doubleday, Page and Company) for copyright infringement.

More thanks are due to Tyler Bagwell for turning up some essential information on this lawsuit. As it turns out, the United States District Court, Southern District of New York ruled in favor of Doubleday in 1930 on the testimony of two witnesses who claimed to have heard and learned the song in 1900 and 1906.

In my opinion, this evidence is anecdotal and somewhat flimsy in terms of overturning Allen’s copyright, but the song was ruled to have been in circulation before Allen’s copyright based on the memories of these two individuals.

Is “Low Bridge Everybody Down” a folk song?

Well, one of the hallmarks of “folk” or “traditional” songs is that they don’t rely on commercial distribution to circulate. As such, they can – and do – take on a life of their own, changing as they’re passed from person to person and community to community.

oral tradition folk songs passing from person to personIf we’re using that definition, then “Low Bridge! – Everybody Down” has certainly become a folk song in spite of its possible origins as a published composition by a professional songwriter. Most people now sing “15 Miles” in place of “15 Years.” Others learned it as “16 Miles,” or “16 Years.” Some sing two verses, some know three. Sometimes (thanks to the Kingston Trio, among others) the melody and verses vary almost completely from the original composition.

I’d call that a folk song.

Early Timeline and Changes

1900  John Jacob Niles reported (in 1930) having first heard his father sing the song in this year, and claims to be certain of the date based on a memory of the county and house they were living in at the time

1905  The song is often cited as having been composed in this year, although Allen himself says it wasn’t until he saw the canal at Rochester that he wrote it

1906  Ballad collector and singer Louis B. Hart of Buffalo later recalled hearing the song sung at “the Canoe club about 1906”

1911  Thomas S. Allen moves from Boston MA to Rochester NY for a job furnishing orchestras to the leading hotels and theaters, and says the song is composed around this time (see text from the record slip below)

1912  The song is copyrighted in manuscript form on November 18

1912  Billy Murray makes the first commercial recording of the song (Victor 17250) in Camden NJ on November 18, the same date it’s copyrighted (video below)

1912  The Peerless Quartet(te) records the song for Columbia Records (Columbia A-1296) on December 6; the same recording is released under pseudonyms on several other labels including United (A-1296) by “Quartette”, Aretino (D-750) by “Vocal Quartette,” Standard (A-1296), and Harmony (A-1296) by “The Harmony Male Quartette” (audio below)

1913  The song is copyrighted in sheet music form on Janurary 11 and again on January 13

1913  Edward Meeker records the song on Edison Blue Amberol 1761 (audio below)

1913  Allen, a Massachusetts native, is working at least part-time in Rochester NY, and has been coming (or living) there for at least a few years

map of erie canal in article about the song1924  Henry A. J. Castor of Albany NY writes to song collector and newspaper columnist R.W. Gordon with the first verse and chorus of the song, using “16 years” in place of “15 years” and saying it was “occasionally sung at Canal Meetings in this state and was for a great many years the prime favorite with canal drivers.” Gordon responds by saying “Your enclosure interests me greatly; I have a number of canal songs which have come in from various sailors, but none at all like this.”

1924  The May 7, 1924 issue of the Saratogian newspaper reports on one William Heath singing “a song of his own composition” entitled Low Bridge, Everybody Down

1925  R.W. Gordon, still unaware of Allen’s published composition, receives another handwritten copy of the song from a reader (verses 1, 2, and 5 only), and replies “Certain things about it make me fairly certain that it originated on the vaudeville stage rather than on the canal, and that it is not very old.” 

1926  The song appears in print with “15 miles” in place of “15 years” for the first time, in Sigmund Spaeth’s book ‘Read ‘em and Weep.’ Spaeth claimed two sources for the song – journalist and author George Chappell (“Captain Traprock,” Spaeth called him), and Mike Ross, who worked at the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York City

1927  Carl Sandburg published the song in his book ‘The American Songbag’, also from George S. Chappell (whom he called “Dr. Traprock”)

1928  F.B. Haviland sues Doubleday, Page and Company for publishing the song in ‘Read ’em and Weep’ without permission; Doubleday counters that the song has been in circulation long before Haviland’s copyright date (see image below)

1929  Vernon Dalhart records the song electronically (Columbia 15378-D) on January 16, and acoustically (Harmony 831-H, Velvet Tone, Viva labels) under the pseudonym Mack Allen on January 21

1929  Frank Crumit makes an unreleased recording of the song for the Victor label on January 25

1930  The United States District Court, Southern District of New York rules that the song was in oral circulation prior to the 1912 copyright, though the evidence is quite flimsy

1934  John and Alan Lomax publish the song in ‘American Ballads and Folk Songs,’ as collected from Rev. Charles A. Richmond of Washington DC

Early Recorded Versions: Low Bridge, Everybody Down

Billy Murray, November 1912:

Harmony Male Quartette, December 1912:

  1. Low Bridge Everybody Down - Harmony Male Quartette

Edward Meeker, 1913:

  1. Low bridge!- everybody down (The Erie Canal Song)

Singing the Song With Kids

I’ve had the great pleasure of singing this song with groups of fourth grade students (and lots of other age groups) for decades now, and the joy it creates never fails to amaze me.

Same for audiences of adults, by the way. It’s a beloved song.

A few notes on singing the “Erie Canal Song” with kids:

low bridge everybody down - dave ruch

  • I love to burst their bubble by singing “15 Years on the Erie Canal” as they sing “15 Miles on the Erie Canal” during the first verse. It clashes with the way they’ve learned it (for those who have) and they’ll playfully begin shouting their version back to me as if I made a mistake! This provides a wonderful “teachable moment” about the origins of the song.
  • Most kids (and adults) have only heard two verses, at most. I love to sing all five, and students seem to love hearing them.
  • When we get to the “Low bridge” part, I always have the kids shout “duck!” and then we all duck our heads as we’re singing “everybody down.” My friend Jerry Raven taught me that, taking a cue from some middle school students he had been singing with.

Have anything further to contribute? I’d love to hear from you in the Comments section below, or directly by email at dave “at” daveruch “dot” com.

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