The Firth of Forth fishery dreg songs come to life

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.

Academics from Edinburgh Napier University including Graham Weir recorded the singing. There’s a sample 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!

Scottish cultural treasure to return to the Firth of Forth readers north of the border may be interested in this press release from American folklorist Bob Walser, who has been working to return ‘dreg song’ work songs used in the oyster fishery to the Firth of Forth.

I’m fascinated by the development, and particularly delighted that he has been able to join up with the Scottish Coastal Rowing movement, the progress of which I have often reported, and followed with interest since the building of the first St Ayles skiff. What’s more it sounds like a great night out!

After a Century, Scottish Cultural Treasure Returning to the Firth

Portobello, June 2012

‘On the 20th of June, an international collaboration will restore to the Firth of Forth the ancient ‘dreg songs’, unique traditions of the local oyster fishery. From 7:30pm, just off Portobello Promenade near the Dalriada Bar, Boatie Blest, Rowporty and Newhaven Coastal Rowing, three Scottish Coastal Rowing clubs, will offer their interpretations of these rowing songs both in their boats (weather permitting) and in the pub.

‘Using recently discovered wax cylinder recordings and typed texts from the 1920s and 30s the clubs will recreate these songs assisted by American folklorist Bob Walser. Wednesday evening will be the first singing of these songs on their home waters in a century!

‘To add to this festive occasion, Edinburgh Museums & Galleries will be bringing traditional fishwives costumes from Newhaven and a display of photographs related to fishing in the Firth.

‘Councillor Richard Lewis, culture and leisure convener, said: “Edinburgh Museums & Galleries are a real treasure trove of the city’s history. Our Newhaven collection is especially cherished by those who live or have lived in the area. This event will showcase some of the artefacts we hold in our collection, providing a fascinating insight into the lives of Newhaven residents from days gone by.”

‘In addition, a special ‘Dreg Songs Ale‘ has been brewed by Inveralmond Brewery and will be available on the night. Of course, a celebration of oyster fishing songs requires oysters and Michael Pollington of Pollington’s Fine Food and Drink has arranged with a local fishmonger to have fine Scottish oysters to enjoy.

‘This will be a truly historic occasion. Recognizing this, both Edinburgh Napier University and Celtic and Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh will be sending students to document the evening, interview participants and create an archival record of this once-in-a-lifetime occasion.

‘The event is being created with the help of the James Madison Carpenter Collection Project, Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen and the Library of Congress (USA), which holds the wax cylinders where these songs were discovered. In addition to all the participants, thanks are due to the National Endowment for the Humanities (USA), the American Folklore Society and The British Academy for supporting the research that will enable these communities to celebrate their traditions in this unique way.

‘Come enjoy an evening by the Firth celebrating these unique and fascinating Scottish song traditions!’

‘Dreg songs’ of the Firth of Forth oyster fishery – an appeal for information

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Song collector James Madison Carpenter shanties, sea songs

Song collector Carpenter recorded songs from the Firth of Forth oyster fishery

Folklorist and shanty expert Bob Walser has put out an appeal for information about the old Firth of Forth oyster fishing – can anyone help him please?

Bob is engaged in what must be one of the most enviable jobs I can imagine – research the material collected by the USA collector James Madison Carpenter, who recorded a large amount of material in the UK.

‘I wonder if you could help me locate imagesor descriptions of the boats, dredges, methods etc of the Firth of Forth oyster fishery – woodcuts, paintings, photos of reproduction boats – etc. Anything at all!

‘I’m trying to get an idea of how the fishing was done in the 18th and 19th centuries: how many men per boat, dredging under sail or oars, single dredge or more, what shape were the dredges, how were the oysters etc?

‘The oyster dredgers in the Firth of Forth in years gone by sang what are called ‘dreg songs’, which seem to have been particular – perhaps unique – to that fishery. There are several recordings of these songs in the James Madison Carpenter Collection and I am trying to better understand how they functioned: how was the work done and how were the songs used?

‘I hope to use this information in the notes to the songs in the critical edition of the collection when it is published and perhaps in presentations or academic papers exploring this song tradition. I’d also like at some time to ‘bring the songs home’ to Fisherrow and Cockenzie where Carpenter recorded them – but for now that’s a dream… ‘

Thanks Bob – I’ve looked and found nothing on this particular fishery in any of the standard works I possess – the Chatham Directory, The Working Boats of Britain, Beach Boats of Britain or Traditional Fishing Boats of Britain and Ireland – but I wonder whether the boats used were like the small creel boats that used to be employed in the area?

Can anyone help please?

For an earlier post on Carpenter’s work, click here.

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