Nero’s Expedition up the Nile

Later this week, I will be heading off to Wisconsin for the annual conference of the Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network, where hundreds of church music directors, instrumentalists, singers, and composers will gather to learn new music, to educate ourselves in best practices, to increase our skills, and to provide choral music for Sunday services at our host church, the First Unitarian Society of Madison. This year it will be especially exciting for me, because one of my pieces was chosen for the choral music reading session.

In keeping with the week’s theme, I thought that I would post something today about music. But it’s not just about music — it’s also about the mementos we leave behind us, about the things we will never know about one another, and about the secret histories of our thoughts.

Several years ago, the a cappella group that I sing with at church performed a round called “Nero’s Expedition up the Nile”. Here are the lyrics:1

Nero’s expedition up the Nile
Because the water hyacinth
Had clogged the river
Denying Nero’s vessels passage
Through the Sudd of Nubia

And here’s a video of a good interpretation of the song (with instruments), performed by the Dedalus Ensemble.

The director of our group had learned this song orally, so the first few times we rehearsed the song we did not even know its composer or its history. But a little research showed that it was written by an interesting character named Moondog (born Louis Hardin). His Wikipedia entry tells you the basics, but this longer biographical piece fleshes out his life a little more.

Question: Was Moondog…

(a) a sometimes-homeless man who for more than 20 years was a fixture on Sixth Avenue in New York, known for his viking helmet, cloak, and spear;
(b) a frequent guest at the home of Philip Glass, where he sang and recorded songs with Glass, Steve Reich, and Jon Gibson, three of the founders of American minimalism;
(c) the composer of more than 100 idiosyncratic rounds; or
(d) a street musician who, late in life, played in the courts of European royalty?

The correct answer, of course, is (e) all of the above.2

So now my a cappella group knew where the unusual round we were singing came from. But still I wondered: How did this song come to be? How did these unusual lyrics wind up in Moondog’s head? Moondog died in 1999, so unless someone had interviewed him and asked this specific question, there would be no real way of finding out for sure.

But perhaps the source could be traced a little further back.

First, some history. According to Seneca3 and Pliny the Elder4, the emperor Nero did send an expedition to find the source of the Nile and to explore the lands around the river, and Seneca even mentions that the waters become completely unpassable at a certain point, due to the masses of vegetation.

However — and this is important — the vegetation could not have been water hyacinth. The water hyacinth is native to South America, and it was not introduced into Africa until the 19th century.5 It did not become a problem on the White Nile until the 1950s. So Nero’s expedition may have turned back because of vegetation, but not because of water hyacinth. Moondog got his history wrong.

I became perhaps just a little obsessed with finding some article or book that could have led Moondog to think about Nero’s expedition to find the source of the Nile. And now I knew that if such an article existed, it most likely would have been written after the late 1950’s, and it must have somehow been unclear in its description of the natural history of the water hyacinth in Africa.

“Nero’s Expedition” appears as round #12 in Book 1 of Moondog’s 1970 booklet Round the World of Sound: Moondog Madrigals. I obtained a copy of this booklet, hoping that it might include some commentary explaining how it happened that Moondog was pondering the failure of Nero’s expedition. Unfortunately, the only annotation to the piece was a date: it was written on June 23, 1968. But that at least gave me a firm ending date for the publication of my hypothetical article.

It turns out that there are quite a few articles about the Nile written between the late 1950’s and 1968. I’ve read a lot of them. And almost all of them either do not mention water hyacinths at all, or make it quite clear that they had arrived on the Nile only recently.

For example, in 1960 the travel writer and former war correspondent Alan Moorehead wrote a bestselling nonfiction book, The White Nile, about the 19th century explorers who traced the Nile to its sources. In the prologue to his book, Moorehead writes:

The Emporer Nero sent two centurions with an expedition into the wastes of Nubia, as the Sudan was then called, but they returned unsuccessful, saying that they had been blocked in the far interior by an impenetrable swamp.

Nearly 400 pages later, in an extended description of the Sudd, Moorehead notes that even when a paddle steamer is pushing through the channels that have been opened up in the maze of papyrus,

[…] the water in the channel itself is not clear, since within the last year or so that most prolific of aquatic plants, the water hyacinth, has taken hold upon the Nile. It reaches out from the banks in long floating filaments with a pretty purple flower, and although it is savaged and cut about by the steamers’ paddles, it never seems to die […]

This is somewhat promising, in that both Nero and the water hyacinth are mentioned in the same book, but the number of pages between the references, and the fact that it is made quite clear that there were no water hyacinths in the Nile during Nero’s time, make it seem unlikely that this is the proximate source of Moondog’s lyrics.

However, Moorehead’s book was based on a series of articles he wrote for the New Yorker. And one of these articles — “To the beginnings of memory”, from the September 27, 1958 issue — actually seems a likely source.6 On pages 140 and 141, Moorehead writes:

Samual Baker gives a fine idea of what the Sudd was like when he saw it in 1870, the stream being then completely blocked. He says, “The immense number of floating islands which are constantly passing down the stream of the White Nile had no exit; thus they were sucked under the original obstruction by the force of the stream, which passed through some mysterious channel until the subterranean passage became choked with a wondrous accumulation of vegetable matter. The entire river became a marsh, beneath which, by the great pressure of water, the stream oozed through innumerable small channels. In fact, the White Nile had disappeared.” This was the obstacle that for a good two thousand years blocked every attempt to get to the source of the river. Two centurions sent by the emperor Nero were forced to turn back, and between that time and the nineteenth century numberless unsuccessful expeditions set out.

A few short paragraphs later, on page 142, Moorehead writes:

In the Sudd, the Nile cabbages vanish—perhaps they are broken up by the rapids above Juba—but they are replaced by the water hyacinth, which is even more prolific. It is a green, fleshy creeper with a pale-purple flower, and it reaches out, floating, from the bank. Long filaments of the plant constantly break away and sail off down the river. We kept smashing into these green rafts, and although they were torn to pieces by the paddles, they always gathered themselves together again in our wake.

Nowhere in this article does Moorehead mention that the water hyacinths are a new feature in the Nile, and the reader has no reason not to believe that the “wondrous accumulation of vegetable matter” that forced Nero’s centurions to turn back was not formed by the water hyacinth.

So, there we are. An article from 1958, and an enigmatic round from a decade later. Is there really a connection between the two? Moondog was blind; any link between him and Moorehead’s article must include at least one further step, a person who had read the article and talked about it. On the other hand, in 1968 the idea of an imperial expedition into a foreign land being turned back by an abundance of flowers would surely have struck a countercultural chord.

But it is probably unrealistic to hope to find an explicit link between Moorehead’s article and Moondog’s round. Like Nero’s centurions, we can go no farther; the source we are seeking is, as was theirs, a distant rumor in a land not our own. We can only turn our boats towards home, and wonder.

Cover photo: “Kenya — Lake Victoria” by Global Environment Facility, shared under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Original here. I might have used this photo instead, but I don’t have permission.

  1. As documented in Robert Scotto’s 2007 biography of Moondog, which has recently been revised and updated. Apparently a biopic is also in the works. 
  2. See paragraphs 3 and 4 of Section 8 of Book VI of Quaestiones Naturales, here in Latin or here in English translation. 
  3. See Book VI of Naturalis Historia, paragraph 181 in this Latin version or Chapter 35 of this English translation
  4. Thanks, Belgium. It’s a seriously invasive species
  5. If you subscribe to the New Yorker, you can follow the link and get a copy of the article. It’s an interesting read, and it’s also fun to look at the 58-year-old advertisements. 

3 thoughts on “Nero’s Expedition up the Nile”

  1. When I learned the round, it was explained to me that it was the product of a boast by or a challenge to Moondog — that he could produce a round based on a passage from the Encyclopedia Britannica. I never independently verified this account.


  2. Hi Tom — That’s an intriguing idea! I would hope that the Britannica would not have made the misstatement about the water hyacinth… but maybe if the challenge were made more generally… “Write a round based on ancient history,” or something…


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