The 200th anniversary of the Erie Canal brings local performer to national spotlight.
“Low bridge, everybody down; Low bridge, we're coming to a town” That is the familiar refrain from what is probably the best-known song about the Erie Canal.
The popular melody often introduces youngsters to canal travel “from Albany to Buffalo” with a mule named Sal.
Songster Dave Ruch has been singing that song to school children and adults alike for over 20 years. So far, 2017 is turning out to be a busier than average year for the historian and professional musician because of the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the construction of the Erie Canal in 1817.
In July he performed his Erie Canal program with banjo, guitar, bones, spoons and jaw harp in Wayne County at the Hotchkiss Museum in Lyons during the Vote Tilla event focusing on women’s suffrage and the bicentennial of the waterway. He has even shared his knowledge of the music and stories of the famed waterway with a national television audience.
“It was a thrill to be included,” said Ruch, who was one of several individuals featured as part of a cover story, “All Hail the Erie Canal,” on the CBS network television program’s “CBS News Sunday Morning” early in July. He was contacted by the show’s producer, who was likely referred to him by the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse.
The primary focus of Ruch’s on-camera interview was the “Low Bridge” tune’s history, including some common myths surrounding its origins and wording.
Ruch, of Buffalo, said the CBS crew spent three days traveling between Albany and Lockport for the shoot in late June. He met them on day two to film his segment at the Spencerport Depot and Canal Museum.
“I had no idea what they would ask me ahead of time,” said Ruch, who estimates the taping took about 30 to 40 minutes. “There was zero micromanagement of what I was going to wear, how they wanted me to say things, etc. The interview was entirely conversational and just like we were chatting in a café somewhere. They told me ahead of time that I’d be welcome to ask for another take, but I didn’t ask and neither did they. My primary takeaway was how laid-back their approach was.”
In the segment Ruch reveals a few myths about the song to longtime correspondent Richard Schlesinger. The song’s original title is not The Erie Canal Song but “Low Bridge! — Everybody Down,” with the subtitle, “Fifteen Years on the Erie Canal.”
Ruch’s research documented that the wording over time changed from 15 years to the more familiar 15 miles. He explained that it was not a song written by those who built or worked on the canal in the early 19th century as often believed.
The credit goes to a professional songwriter from Massachusetts named Thomas S. Allen who came to Rochester in the early 20th century when the canal was undergoing an expansion.
“He sees the canal for the first time, hears the phrase 'low bridge,' and he ends up composing the song. It's the only canal song he wrote,” said Ruch.
Ruch travels regionally and internationally as a full-time musician performing historical and traditional music from all over New York state at schools, music festivals, historical societies, museums and community events. He performed the “Low Bridge” song on a concert tour in England where people already knew it and sang along.
In addition to Erie Canal tunes, he brings to life Adirondack ballads, Native American chants, and Great Lakes ditties, among others.
“Dave is engaging, relating well to his audience,” said Cindy Russell, president of the Newark-Arcadia Historical Society where Ruch has performed twice, most recently for the society’s annual dinner in May. “He keeps things moving and mixes familiar with the not-so-familiar adding great conversation and information between his selections. He is relaxed, has a good sense of humor, and is certainly versatile on a variety of folk instruments. It was just a fun evening all the way around with lots of positive responses following his program.”
Find out more about the history of the "Low Bridge" Erie Canal song, its lyrics, music and history at http://daveruch.com/erie-canal-song/.
To see the segment of "CBS News Sunday Morning," visit http://www.cbsnews.com/news/all-hail-the-erie-canal-200th-anniversary/.