A notoriously tough town on the lower Ohio River, Shawneetown was the most important port between St. Louis and Louisville. Its proximity to salt mines and its abundance of whisky, gamblers and "sisters of joy" made it a major trade center for Illinois settlers and Indians. By 1828, however, it had already quieted down.
The song comes to us primarily from folklorist and musician Dillon Bustin, who heard part of it as child in southern Indiana and picked up the rest of it from printed sources. But the song filtered its way to us through some of Dillon's Midwestern friends.
The beech oar is the long oar pre-steam rivercraft employed for maneuvering down river. Bushwacking in this jargon meant to propel a boat upstream by pulling on overhead branches.
Well some poles up, but we floats down|
Way down the Ohio to Shawneetown
And it's hard on the beech oarIt's hot in the summer, boys, the air is thick and dank,
And the darned old fog it gets so heavy you cannot see the bank.
Now the current's got her, boys, we'll take up some slack.
There's whisky in the jug, boys, and meat in the sack.
I got a wife in the Louisville and one in New Orleans,