A man called John Short

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John Short, otherwise known as Yankee Jack, sitting on the breakwater at Watchet

John Short, otherwise known as Yankee Jack, sitting on the breakwater
at Watchet. Thanks to the EFDSS/Cecil Sharp Collection for
allowing us to use this image

John Short statue by the harbur at Watchet

The John Short statue by the harbour at Watchet

Still on the theme of Watchet, I’d like to introduce readers to a man I hadn’t even heard of until my parents decided to buy a holiday cottage in the little town some years ago.

My ignorance that was my loss. John Short is commemorated in Watchet as Yankee Jack (he earned the nickname sailing in Yankee ships during the American Civil War) and is remembered for being a great seaman. However, he was an even greater singer: Yankee Jack had a tremendous memory and had learned many songs during a widely-travelled seagoing career. In fact, he provided the English folk song collector Cecil Sharp with a splendid collection of sea songs and shanties, many of which have become the standard versions we still know today.

These days, John Short the sailor and singer is represented by a fine statue by the harbour in Watchet, but I think his greatest memorial must be the songs, which from Sharp he sang in fine style with lots of melisma – that is, frequent changes of note within syllables. I only wish I knew of recordings that we could hear!

There’s an impressive list of his songs at the English Folk Dance & Song Society website.

10 thoughts on “A man called John Short”

  1. I hope my parents can be forgiven for their holiday cottage – just a few years later they moved to the area for good and my father went on to campaign for years to persuade the local authorities to promote the area as a walking centre.

    He now tells me that he's given up in the face of an implacable official indifference, by the way!


  2. ……….coming down here telling us how to do things…..

    Never mind all that, what about the book? Have you read it?


  3. I thought you might admire his commitment to the community and the National Park šŸ˜‰

    No, I'm sorry to say I haven't read it. But I've just bought a copy for £3.50!


  4. Yes, my father was from Yorkshire and was a local journalist here for forty years. I don't know what these local communities would do without "new blood".

    You'll love the book. Watchet is, and certainly was, an interesting place. If Yankee Jack's a good nickname, wait till you read some of the others.

  5. I'm looking forward to it.

    I've got an idea that nicknames from former times have often been more interesting than our own. The Viking king called Bluetooth had a fine one, for example.

    More recently, navvies in the 19th century were great nicknamers, or so I gathered from a history I once read. At one time it seemed that half of them were nicknamed 'Scan', which was short for 'Scandal' and referred to some spot of bother that they had got involved in.

    The great concertina player and step dancer Scan Tester will have earned his name in the same way, but no-one seems to mention that! See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scan_Tester for more.

    One of my ambitions is to bring regular step dancing back to Kent, btw.


  6. Old Bottles, Teddy Slackass, Margerine Jack, Billy Go Deeper, The King Of Lundy, Fearless Joe………..and probably a thousand others forgotten forever.

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