The Shoals of Herring makes an unexpected comeback

Inside Llewyn Davis

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.

Singing the Fishing – the radio ballad as a film

I really don’t know how this series of Youtubes came about. There seems no question that the soundtrack is based on the 1950s radio ballad Singing the Fishing about about the rise and decline of the herring industry on the east coast of Scotland and East Anglia made by Ewan McColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker in the 1950s.

The radio ballads were artistic pieces created using a mixture of songs and authentic working people’s speech made to create am impression of an aspect of their lives, and Singing the Fishing is perhaps the best known example of the genre.

If I’m right, the songs are sung by McColl, with music by Seeger, concertinist Alf Edwards and others, including a jazz clarinettist – I guess that last element is the 1950s equivalent of the rock band lead guitarist (tell that to kids today!) but it sounds simultaneously pleasant and bizarre now. I think I also recognise Bert Lloyd’s voice in the mix.

I gather the visual material is footage is made up of archive photos and clips from various films including John Greirson’s film Drifters, Harry Watts’ North Sea, and Campbell Harper’s Calling Herring.

My thanks to Chris Brady for spotting this one.

Paddy West’s House!

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The series of scans from Tait’s Seamanship I began a few days ago reminded me of the song Paddy West’s House, which describes a rather less salubrious ‘educational’ establishment that achieved celebrity status in the city of Liverpool a century and a half ago – not least because of the famously useless ‘sailors’ crimper West supplied to skippers waiting to leave the docks.

My recording made yesterday evening is linked above. The box, by the way, is my latest melodeon, an ancient two-row Koch melodeon that might have been made in the 1910s or ’20s. It has a nice soft tone that makes it very pleasant to sing with, and I think I’ll be using it from time to time.

I learned the song from a record as a teenager and over the last few days half-remembered that I had got it from an old Topic sampler of sea songs, on which it was sung by Stan Kelly – but looking at the online discographies, I must be mistaken – almost the only recordings of the song I can find on that label that I can find was by Ewan MacColl. I must take a look through my father’s vinyl recordings when I get a chance.

I should also add a small word of caution. I now realise there could not be such a sail as a ‘forward top mains’l, however salty it may sound – but the teenager that learned the song so many years ago didn’t know that, and I suspect the singer he got it from wasn’t aware  either. So that’s another little job for me – get the lyrics technically right next time I sing it in public…

PS – Paul Mullings has pasted a nice alternative set of lyrics in the comments below. I hope this doesn’t mean he disapproves of mine!