Old Shady


   Of all the members of John Wesley Powell’s 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 Powell’s 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 Lincoln’s army. The references to “Mas’ Jeff” and “Mis’r Stephens” must surely refer to Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens, the President and Vice President of the Confederacy. Old Shady’s wife and child had apparently already escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad.

   It was quite a thrill to discover that Walter’s favorite song was an in-your-face Civil War victory song, from a freed slave’s 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.

Dan Hunting