Row Us Over the Tide


Kelly Harrell


Kelly Harrell, a Virginia textile factory worker, never learned to play an instrument. But when he heard Charlie Poole’s popular stringband records of 1925, Harrell decided he could sing better than Poole. He took some musicians with him to audition for the Victor label.

The resulting 43 records over the next 4 years are wildly uneven. As I hear them, two-thirds just don’t stand up over time — not well chosen, awkwardly arranged, listlessly sung. But sometimes … sometimes something magical happens in the recording room. Everything comes together, and those recordings are some of the best ever recorded. It is a mysterious and wonderous thing.

On July 9, 1942, to show his co-workers how fit he was despite being 52 years old, Harrell hopped out of the first-story window of the textile factory where he worked onto the sidewalk below. He took a couple steps, collapsed, and died. According to his wife, Lula, “He never was a farsighted man.”

On August 12, 1927, Harrell recorded “Row Us Over The Tide” as a duet with Henry Norton, a tenor he had never met before and would never meet again. They’re accompanied by banjo, guitar, and the strange and beautiful fiddling of Lonnie Austin. The vocals are corny and maudlin, even humorous. But I also find them uncannily moving.

The song seems to have been a widely-known gospel tune, dating from around the Civil War. In it, two children beg a mysterious boatman to row them over a mysterious tide. It’s hard to avoid the interepretation that the exhausted Orphans are begging to be taken to Heaven — that is, they’re begging to die:

Two little children were strolling one day
Down by the river side.
One stepped up to the boatman and said,
“Row us over the tide.”

“Row us over the tide,
Row us over the tide,”
One stepped up to the boatman and said,
“Row us over the tide.”

“Be kind to us, mister, dear Mother is dead;
We have no place to abide.
Our father’s a gambler and cares not for us,
Please row us over the tide.”

“The angels took Mother to her heavenly home,
There with the saints to abide.
Our father’s forsaken us, he’s left us alone,
Please row us over the tide.”

“Mama and Papa told Willie one day,
Jesus would come for their child.
We are so tired of waiting so long,
Row us over the tide.”

Thinking of this song, with its dream-like detachment from any specific time and place, I’m often reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s recurring dream. He talked about it at his last cabinet meeting, only hours before he was shot at Ford’s Theater. In the dream, according to Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Navy, “he seemed to be in some singular, indescribable vessel, and he was moving with great rapidity towards an indefinite shore.”



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s