Captain Pearl R. Nye: Life on the Ohio and Erie Canal


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An Informant in Search of a Collector:
Captain Pearl R. Nye of Ohio

By Rebecca B. Schroeder

Close-up of a man with a goatee wearing a hat
 Silent film clip of Captain Pearl R. Nye on the roof of the Thomas Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress, 1938. Library of Congress, American Folklife Center – Archive of American Folk Song Films Collection, AFC 1990/017.

Captain Nye often wrote that he had lived beyond his time: That he belonged back in the late 19th century when "The Silver Ribbon," as he sometimes called it, was still economically feasible and the Canal was a way of life that, at least in retrospect, he found completely fulfilling.  In fact, he was several decades ahead of his time in his recognition of the value of his material and his efforts, often frustrated, but never abandoned, to see that his songs and memories of the Canal were preserved.  In an undated note in the Summit County Historical Collection of Nye material he wrote:  "Four [of the songs] are over 500 years of age according to some writers I saw in a book of the Chicago Public Library in 1926," and he was in correspondence with the Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society in Columbus about his Canal material as early as 1932.  It is unfortunate that his efforts to preserve his culture resulted for the most part in a series of lost opportunities and missed chances on the part of collectors; and that there is still the possibility of the loss of a major part of the unique oral tradition of which Captain Nye was an intelligent and articulate carrier.

 Read Rebecca B. Schroeder's complete essay (PDF). (9 pp, 106 Kb, Help with PDF)