Captain Pearl R. Nye. American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
Captain Pearl R. Nye was born on the Ohio and Erie Canal on a family canal boat, the "Reform," on February 5, 1872, the fifteenth of twenty-one children. Originally built to transport goods from Ohio to eastern markets, the Ohio and Erie Canal was in decline by the time Nye was born. As railroads came to serve transportation needs after the Civil War, the ownership of boats passed from larger businesses to private owners, like Nye's parents, who continued to work the canal until the melting of a record snowfall flooded Ohio's canal system and destroyed most of the locks in 1913. In Nye's family, like that of other canalers, the mobility of the family business meant that the children received little formal schooling. Children were entertained with songs, and Nye memorized a great many of these, including old songs with roots in English tradition and newer songs composed by family members or other canalers and set to traditional tunes. These songs were passed along among the canalers at gatherings, so that songs sung on one boat soon became known all up and down the length of the canal. Nye continued in the family profession, and was sometimes called "The Last of the Canal Boat Captains."
Folklorist John A. Lomax heard of the retired canal boat captain who had a large repertoire of folk songs, and recorded thirty-three of his songs in June of 1937. Alan Lomax recorded him later the same year. The Lomaxes also helped arrange for Nye to perform his songs for the public. He performed at the National Folklife Festival in Washington, D. C. in 1938, and again in 1942 when the festival was in New York. Nye contributed a manuscript of about four hundred song lyrics to the Library of Congress during his life and left a manuscript of additional songs to the Ohio State Historical Society after his death.
Schroeder, Rebecca B. "An Informant in Search of a Collector: Captain Pearl R. Nye of Ohio." Paper originally read at the 1973 meeting of the American Folklore Society in Nashville, Tennessee.
Timeline of the life of Pearl R Nye (American Memory).
Captain Pearl R. Nye: Life on the Ohio and Erie Canal (American Memory).