Divided by war, united by a song
Sometimes it is the strangest things that can take opposing sides with vastly different objectives and provide an unforeseen area of commonality. In this particular case it was a song. It became popular during one of our nation’s most divisive times, the Civil War, and gave each side something comforting in the midst of unimaginable pain and loss. It has been documented that its haunting words, which spoke of love and loss, could be heard within both Union and Confederate camps as they sang around their campfires at night.
It quickly became one of our area’s claims to fame since it was entitled “The Blue Juniata” and was inspired by our very own Juniata River. This song was also historically significant for another reason — it was the first commercially successful song to be written by an American woman! The song’s lyrics and melody were composed by Marion Dix Sullivan after she was inspired by the beauty she witnessed while traveling down the Juniata Branch of the Pennsylvania Canal. Edward L. White later did the arranging, and the song was published in 1844. It quickly gained in popularity because it told an emotional story of an “Indian girl” and her warrior lover and how they could no longer be found on the banks of their beloved Juniata since they had been forced from their home. It dealt with a topic that many Americans were becoming concerned about, the troubling treatment of our indigenous people. Here are the words of “The Blue Juniata” as they were originally published:
Wild rov’d an Indian girl, bright Alfarata, Where sweep the waters of the blue Juniata. Swift as an antelope, through the forest going, Loose were her jetty locks in wavy tresses flowing.
Gay was the mountain song of bright Alfarata, Where sweep the waters of the blue Juniata. Strong and true my arrows are in my painted quiver, Swift goes my light canoe on down the rapid river.
Bold is my warrior good, the love of Alfarata, Proud waves his snowy plume along the Juniata. Soft and low he speaks to me, then his war-cry sounding, Rings his voice in thunder loud, from height to height resounding.
So sang the Indian girl, bright Alfarata, Where sweep the waters of the blue Juniata. Fleeting years have borne away the voice of Alfarata, Still sweeps the river on, the blue Juniata.
Another interesting bit of information about the song is that it appeared on Little House on the Prairie. In one of the episodes Ma sang “The Blue Juniata” to her children as a bedtime lullaby. In the episode, Laura Ingles Wilder asks her mother at the end of the song, “Where did the voice of Alfarata go, Ma?” Her mother replied that Alfarata probably went west because that is where they were forced to go. Although meant to be a soothing lullaby, it is inferred that it only caused Laura to lay and ponder the loss suffered by these early Americans. It once again highlighted this moral dilemma, the plight of the indigenous people who lived here in the Juniata River Valley.
If you would like to listen to the song, it is quite easy to find online if you search “The Blue Juniata” on YouTube, several versions can be found there. Another interesting fun fact is that Alfarata, an actual, census-designated place located here in Decatur Township, Mifflin County, was named after the heroine in “The Blue Juniata.” Just one more reason why I am proud of our rich heritage and honored to live in the Juniata River Valley!
Rhonda Kelley is executive director of the Juniata River Valley Visitors Bureau.