Of all the members of John Wesley Powells
expeditions through the Grand Canyon, only his younger brother Walter seems to have
acquired a nickname. Old Shady Powell was given to singing a song by that
name, which he delivered in a fine bass voice in the now inundated Music
Temple. In reading accounts of Powells voyages, it is apparent that it was common in
those days for even the roughest of men to have memorized a repertoire of song and poetry.
This was the entertainment for the crew in the days before boatmen started carrying a
Walkman in their ammo can.
Walter Powell is a mysterious figure on that first trip. A Civil War veteran
like most of the others, he spent time in Confederate prisoner of war camps. John Wesley
Powell seems to have invited his brother on the expedition to help him shake the demons of
what we would now call Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. The other men seem to have shunned
Walter, perhaps out of fear. He is said to gave pulled a gun on Billy Hawkins and Bill
Dunn in an incident at the mouth of the Dirty Devil.
In trying to track down the words and music to the song Old Shady, I had
expected to find a romantic, sentimental number like most of the others sang on the trip.
It was a surprise to find that it was a fiery Civil War era song about the freeing of the
slaves. Old Shady turns out to be a freed slave, taunting his former master
about the coming of Abraham Lincolns army. The references to Mas
Jeff and Misr Stephens must surely refer to Jefferson Davis and
Alexander Stephens, the President and Vice President of the Confederacy. Old Shadys
wife and child had apparently already escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad.
It was quite a thrill to discover that Walters favorite song was an
in-your-face Civil War victory song, from a freed slaves perspective. Seven of the
ten members of the first Powell expedition had fought in the Civil War, so this song must
have had a very special personal meaning for them.
The melody appears here exactly as it was published in an old collection of
popular songs. I have added guitar chords for accompaniment.