River Yare from Haven Bridge, Great Yarmouth. Photo
by Ranveig, taken from the Wikimedia
This is a song that has come down to many of us via Ewan MacColl, who collected it from the legendary Norfolk singer Sam Larner, though I think I first learned it from Terry L Kinsey’s book Songs of the Sea.
MacColl used a large amount of the material he collected from Larner as the basis for his one of the famous Radio Ballads, Shoals of Herring. If the name’s familiar, it might be because MacColl made a song by the same name for the radio drama-documentary production that subsequently became hugely popular around the folk scene.
It also seems to have been hugely popular with Larner himself, in his autobiography, MacColl reported that after he’d sung the song to Larner, the old gentleman had told him he was glad he’d learned it, saying that he’d known the new song all his life. One never really knows with autobiographies, but it makes a nice story – and that is just the kind of reaction that would make a political songwriter like MacColl rightly proud.
But let’s go back to Larner’s own song, The Smacksman!
Once I was a schoolboy and stayed at home with ease.
Now I am a smacksman and I plough the raging seas.
I thought I’d like seafaring life but very soon I found
It was not all plain sailing, boys, when out on the fishing ground.
Coil away the trawl warp, boys, let’s heave in the trawl.
When we get our fish on board we’ll have another haul.
Straightway to the capstan and merrily heave her round,
That’s the cry in the middle of the night: ‘Haul the trawl, boys, haul’
Every night in winter, as reg’lar as the clock
We put on our old sou’westers, likewise our oilskin frock,
And straightway to the capstan and merrily spin away,
That’s the cry in the middle of the night: ‘Haul the trawl,boys, haul’.
When we get our fish on board we have them all to gut
We have them all to clean and in the ice-locker put,
We gut them and we clean them, and we stow ‘em all away,
We stow them just as nice as the oyster in his shell.
When eight long weeks are over, then down the tiller goes
And we’re racing back to Yarmouth Roads with the big jib on her nose
And when we get to Yarmouth Town, then all the girls will say
Here comes our jolly fisherlads, who’ve been so long away
The only way I can sing this thing without being too naughty with people’s recording rights and copyright is to sing it myself. Here’s my version: The Smacksman