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Pearl Nye, the Canal Guy

With his bushy mustache and well-weathered face, Capt. Pearl R. Nye is the epitome of an "old, salty dog" – a man who lives and dies by the water and his boat. His favorite tunes have lyrics like "You may talk of your pleasure trips on the Great Lakes,
But a trip on these canal boats, you bet, takes the cake" and "I married a wife, she was a plague of my life, And I wish I was single again."

Photograph of Captain Pearl R. Nye in Akron, Ohio Lomax with banjo player Wade Ward. 1959

Born on the canal boat "Reform" on February 5, 1872, Nye literally spent his life on the Erie and Ohio Canal. He lived and worked on the canal, and, after his father died, he became captain of one of his family's boats, which he helmed until the canal ceased operating in 1913. Nye never married, or, rather he was married to the "Big Ditch."

When the canal closed, Nye worked tirelessly to preserve its history and culture, including the survival of its oral tradition. John and Alan Lomax, under the auspices of the Library of Congress, recorded more than 70 of Nye's songs with commentary. Nye also contacted local historical organizations and libraries about preserving his materials and collaborated with an author to write a book about his life on the canal. In 1950, the captain died before he could find the in-depth collector he so wanted.

As part of the Library's American Memory Collections, "Captain Pearl R. Nye: Life on the Ohio and Erie Canal" includes manuscripts, photographs and audio discs containing the Lomax recordings. The lyrics of these songs, which include a combination of traditional music and original compositions by Nye, have been transcribed by Library of Congress staff.

American Memory features written and spoken words, sound recordings, still and moving images, prints, maps and sheet music that document the American experience. Users can view and print Civil War-era song sheets, watch an early 20th century animation or read a dance manual from the late 15th century.

The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress is home to the Alan Lomax Collection, which contains sound recordings, film, fieldnotes, journals, photographs and more that the legendary folklorist amassed and collected over 60 years from numerous trips all over the world.

A. Photograph of Captain Pearl R. Nye in Akron, Ohio. American Folklife Center. Reproduction Information: Reproduction Information not available.

B. Lomax with banjo player Wade Ward. 1959. American Folklife Center. Reproduction Information: Not available for reproduction.