Maverick Hollywood film producers the Coen brothers latest movie has apparently revived awareness and even interest in Ewan MacColl’s song The Shoals of Herring, which he based on a series of interviews with the East Coast fisherman Sam Larner – himself a tremendous singer of old fashioned songs.
The song was originally written for Singing the Fishing, one of a series of late 1950s BBC radio dramas known as the Radio Ballads created by MacColl, his wife and musical partner Peggy Seeger, and radio producer Charles Parker – read about the Radio Ballads and Sam Larner here. (There are also quite a few references to Larner on this site, by the way.)
That MacColl’s song should have come to renewed attention in this way is quite remarkable – the film is a re-imagining of what the great New York guitarist and singer Dave Van Ronk’s young life would have been like if it had been completely different – this is Hollywood, after all.
One of the twists is that the young Llewyn Davis/Van Ronk character sings it to his sick old father because it had been one of the old man’s favourites.
The irony is that the film is set in 1961 – a time when MacColl’s song had been in existence for only a couple of years, and could not then have been a long standing favourite of anyone’s, except in fiction.
It’s a tribute to MacColl’s ability as a songwriter and his ear for language that he managed to create a song that sounds like an old song to so many people. What’s more it still seems to strike a chord with at least some fishing people today, as I’ve heard members of fishing families sing it in the pubs of North Kent.
Now, of course, people in their thousands have and will see the movie, and get the idea the song was a traditional folk song, and no doubt the online forums will ring with people putting each other right on where it really came from for decades to come.
Oh well – at least folks will be singing the song and talking about it.
The story from the Beeb includes some quotes from John Howson, a man who has himself dedicated his life to making recordings of fishermen, farmworkers and others singing old and traditional songs. This is the genuine stuff – many of his informants songs can be heard on CDs made available by his CD label Veteran Records, but check out the rest of the site for other singers, including a fabulous CD made of old Sam Larner’s songs taped in the late 50s.
My thanks to Chris Brady for spotting the story on the BBC website.