I know it’s a bit unconventional, but I sing in the car. I was once stopped by a couple of police officers worried I was crazed by drink or drugs, but I’m unrepentant about my technique for relieving the nearly unbearable tedium of driving: it keeps me cheerful and it’s a darn sight better than dozing off.
For the past fortnight I’ve been singing wherever I go, and the reason for all the noise in recent days is that the CD Short Sharp Shanties: sea songs of a Watchet sailor is newly released and on my CD player.
It’s the first of three volumes of sea songs collected from shantyman John Short by the noted folk song and dance collector Cecil Sharp. The songs are bloody marvellous, with strong anthemic choruses and often simple but highly effective tunes that have something in common with both playground songs and the best rock’n’roll classics.
They’re also easy to memorise for your own use – say for rowing, singing in a session or pub, or just keeping yourself awake behind the wheel – because so much of a shanty is repeated.
Short’s shanties are particularly interesting because they are often different versions from those collected later, for example by shantyman-turned-scholar Stan Hugill (buy his excellent books here). Some of them also seem to reveal just a little more of the African element of their origins.
The words of the verses and choruses cover all sorts of topics, from bragging fantasies about being missed by the girls of various ports and of home, excitement at going on a voyage somewhere exotic and strange, pride in the vessels, and the vicious bullying meted out by the captains and mates.
While the songs themselves are uniformly splendid, the performances on this first Short Sharp Shanties collection are extremely varied – with the result that listeners will inevitably like some more than others. This is because Tom and Barbara Brown, who led the project, and CD label boss Doug Bailey arranged for the songs to be led by a collection of very different of well-known singers, not all of them noted for singing this kind of material, and allowed them arrange and perform the material in the way they wished. So at different times the singers sound variously like hard-working sons of toil, carefully wrought works of scholarship and the dreamy laments wistful fair maidens.
That’s how it’s gone with shanties in the decades since the end of the commercial cargo-carrying sailing ships – around the maritime festivals, folk festivals and folk clubs they are often presented in all these ways and more.
The worksong type of approach adopted here by Tom and Barbara Brown, Keith Kendrick, Jeff Warner and a very piratey-sounding Jim Mageean must be the most appropriate, but it has to be said that the Jackie Oates’s very un-blokey arrangement of Tommy’s Gone is so pretty I can imagine it becoming a kind of folkie hit single.
Roger Watson’s pleasant, very musical approach to these songs is also more tune and arrangement and less work. Sam Lee’s brave and effective attempt to recreate Short’s extraordinary wandering style of singing verses provides a fascinating insight – though it’s difficult to see how the working party could know when the pull or push might be coming.
If only Sharp had used sound recording equipment instead of paper and pencil, we’d know so much more about how they used to sing this stuff – or at least we’d know how an elderly gentleman of 92 years performed them long after he left the rythmic toil involved in working capstans and pumps and hauling halliards.
In the meantime, I’m looking forward to volume 2 of this collection. I don’t know when it’s due for release, but when it comes out I plan to enjoy some more bawling, ranting and roaring behind the wheel. In the meantime, why not buy a copy of volume 1 and join me?
I’ve been given permission to put up a couple of sample MP3s: Sing Fare You Well sung and played by Keith Kendrick and The Bully Boat (Ranzo Ray) sung by Tom Brown . If you want any more, you’d better buy a copy for yourself!
PS – If you enjoy sea songs, take a peek at our Songs, tunes and videos page.
PPS – There’s a very useful page on sea shanties on the Wikipedia.