Old Time Riverman

by John Hartford

Autoharp and vocal-Cathy; guitar and vocal-Dave; vocal-Paul; bass-Forrest; harmonica-Knox

No one has expressed river life musically better than John Hartford, especially when he's on the river singing for good friends and fellow pilots. Author Ben Lucien Burman wrote of the legend of steamboatmen reincarnated as herons. These beautiful tall birds perch themselves just ahead of a boat on a partially submerged log or snag and then fly on to the next one apparently to warn pilots of the danger.

Where does an old time riverman go
After he's passed away?
Does his soul still keep watch on the deep
For the rest of the river days?
Does he then come back as a channel cat,
Or the wasps that light on the wheel?
Or the birds that fly in the summer sky,
Or the fish swimming under the keel?

Where does an old time pilot go
After he's stood his last watch?
Does he fall by the ear of the one who steers,
Saying, "Hold her on that notch."
There's a gentle sneeze in the river breeze,
Saying "Son, I'm goin' to bed."
Then he lights his pipe and goes off in the night,
Or was that a firefly instead?

Where does and old time engineer go
After he's cooled her down?
Gone up the hill to never come back
On the quiet side of town?
Does his soul live on in the engine's song
As the striker checks the gear?
Is he still afloat on an old steamboat
After he's gone from here?