“Michael,” also known as “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” is a folk song that dates back to the Civil War. A true slave song, it was first noticed at St. Helena Island, one of the Sea Islands of South Carolina. The slaves sang the song as they rode a boat to the mainland to work. Slave owners had lived on the island, but when the Northern Army put up a blockade of the island, the owners fled from the island, leaving the slaves behind. It was during the securing of the island that the song was first heard by the Northern forces.
As might be expected, this song comes from an oral tradition and there are many different words to it, the slaves changing the lyrics whenever they felt like it. There are many sets of lyrics historically preserved of “Michael”
The song was first heard commercially in 1954 when it was adapted by Boston folksinger, Tony Saletan, who then taught it to Pete Seeger. It doesn’t appear as if Seeger ever recorded the song as a single, but it may be on one of his earlier albums.
The Highwaymen comprised Dave Fisher, Bob Burnett, Steve Butts, Chan Daniels and Steve Trott. They met in 1958 when they were all students at Wesleyan University. Fisher had been a doo-wop singer before going to college. He became the lead singer and arranger for the group and in 1959, after playing locally they were encouraged to go to New York to find a record label. They did and soon signed a contract with United Artists to record an album. Their first single was “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” which United Artists shortened to just “Michael” and by the 1961, the song had reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100.
Folk music was fairly big the Sixties, but the Highwaymen didn’t really last long. They would have only one other hit, “Cotton Fields” which reached number thirteen. The group disbanded in 1964 and each entered into another career field. They reunited in 1985 (minus Daniels who had died in 1975) and after that they recorded several albums and toured a dozen or so times a year. The personnel changed slightly over the years. Dave Fisher, who started the whole thing died in 2010. The last time the group performed as a unit was in 2009 at the Guthrie Center in Massachusetts.
“Michael” entered the pop chart on July 31, 1961 and spent two weeks at number one.