A little song about a couple of sailors I learned from a recording of Sarah Makem – the mother of Irish singing star Tommy Makem.
The photo above is one of Bob’s and was borrowed from his weblog. Click on it to visit his site
Crews from three Scottish Coastal Rowing clubs, Boatie Blest, Newhaven and Portobello this week dressed up in old fashioned clothes, assembled on the beach at Porty and sang the traditional dreg songs as recorded and noted in the 1930s by US folklorist James Madison Carpenter.
The result was captured by BBC radio programme-makers – you can hear it here, for as long as the BBC keeps it online. The relevant segment starts at 1:18:45, and in it US folklorist Bob Walser explains how the songs work.
There’s also some video here.
Bob found the songs while studying Carpenter’s material, and it was originally his dream that they should be sung in their proper setting by authentic voices.
He and the rowing clubs organised it all to coincide with Bob’s visit to Scotland to perform at the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival at Portsoy last weekend.
Bob seems more than delighted with the results – his weblog makes it clear that it was a great night with lots of singing.
There’s a report also at the Scottish Coastal Rowing website.
I’m so glad it all came off. I couldn’t be at the event, but did manage a small contribution of my own.
When Bob asked whether I could tell him anything about the dreg songs I couldn’t help directly but suggested local rowers might be interested in learning and using them. I’d already had a communication from coastal rower Osbert Lancaster in the old Firth of Forth oyster fishery area enquiring about rowing songs… So I put the two gentlemen in touch and they got to organising. The rest, as they say, is hard work by Bob and the clubs to bring it about, a memorable night of singing, a good story… and history. Fabulous stuff!
This comes from a recording of a kitchen concert that took place at our friends Annie Dearman and Steve Harrison’s home this weekend, and I think it has a ring of truth about it.
Having observed human nature over many decades now, I’m quite sure this kind of thing happened on board sailing ships, as well as on the steamers and motor ships that came later.
The capstan shanty Paddy Lay Back, sung by shantyman Chris Roche at a sea songs session at Frittenden, Kent in March 2012.
Chris is very modest – but he must one of the most committed singers of sea songs around, at least that I know.
The brains and energy behind The Shanty Crew (established 1976), he has studied these songs, their history and their proper purpose for decades, including using them on a square-rigged sailing ships rounding Cape Horn. He was also privileged to learn from the legendary Stan Hugill – the last working shanty singer.
It’s of a flash packet, La Pique is her name
All in the East Indies she bears great fame
For cruel bad usage of every degree
Like slaves in the galleys we plough the salt sea
This is another song I first heard many years ago on a Topic album. The melodeon here is my ancient Koch CF box, which I haven’t had long but really like using for this kind of thing. I think it dates from the 1920s before the Koch company became part of Hohner, and it’s funny to remember that dates back to a time when the crews of sailing ships still sang this song for their own entertainment.
I’m sorry to say I know very little about the origins of the song or the ship named La Pique that it describes – the references on the Internet seem to conflict. What’s more, to illustrate the song itself, I had to ‘borrow’ a photo of a completely different – though appropriately smart – packet ship from the mid-19th century.
Here’s a ghost story for Halloween – the great old slow sea shanty Lowlands, with an engraving drawn from Van der Velde and photos from Geoffrey Robertshaw.
To find out more about Robertshaw and his fabulous photos of the last days of sail, click here.
For more sea songs from our friends and ourselves, click here.
PS – Like many others, I was astonished to learn that this year’s Turner Prize has been won by a sound sculpture featuring this very song.