The life and times of John Short of Watchet 1839-1933

John Short book

Buy this book here.

Most of us have heard and enjoyed singing sea shanties at some point. From books by yachting writers of the past (Francis B Cooke, for example) we know they enjoyed singing them a century ago (in the same era as some of the the collectors were collecting the songs), and composers and film makers have long used them as a device to signify sailing ships and sailors.

But while we’re all aware of the iconic status of sea shanties, most of us probably have little idea of the lives of those who used them in earnest to enable a group of men to work in time doing tasks such as:

  • hauling halliards (the lines that raise sails)
  • heaving on a capstan (for example, to raise the anchor)
  • pumping seawater from a ship’s leaky bilges (there were plenty of them, particularly in the years before Plimsoll’s reforms)

Where and when these songs were collected, and from whom, may also be a bit of a mystery – many of the books that I’ve seen over the years haven’t bothered to include the information.

Tom Brown’s A Sailor’s Life is therefore very welcome – for it answers both of these questions, describing as it does the life of mariner John  Short of Watchet, a man whose long career followed an arc that began with going to sea as a boy, working as a deep sea sailor in his young life, then worked on local boats, and eventually becoming a hoveller (a kind of local pilot and harbour boatman) as he grew older.

Happily for him and us, he does not seem to have got into the kinds of troubles involving drink, women and crimpers that are described by so many of the ‘warning’ type of sea songs.

Yankee Jack, as he was often called as an acknowledgement of his trips across the Atlantic, was also a popular local singer whose huge collection of sea songs and shanties (more than 150) going back to the mid 19th century were noted by the legendary folk song collector Cecil Sharp.

I’ve known  author Tom Brown since the 70s, though not well as I might have done as he’s generally a quiet chap, at least until he starts singing. But you have to watch the quiet ones, and I have to say this is a cracking book full of stories and detail: which ships Short sailed with, when, what his roles were on board, all referenced from Lloyd’s list and many other sources, and all spelt out very carefully.

Where there is ambiguity or doubt in the sources, Tom wisely takes great care to say so before arguing for his own conclusions. There are illuminating notes, too, about the ships themselves.

This material must have taken untold hours of research and thought.

The book also includes  wonderful set of 50-odd songs from Short’s remarkable collection. Thanks to Short’s long career and excellent memory, many of these are of an earlier vintage than those noted from other sources and often show interesting differences, while others are very much the versions that were found in the school books of my youth or in Stan Hugill’s classic book Songs of the Sea.

I must confess to a soft spot for John Short, for Watchet and its harbour, which in recent years has been overlooked by a statue of the old boy. Three decades ago my parents had a well-used second home in Watchet for some years (they later retired to the area), and I know the steps – still unchanged – where the best known photos of Yankee Jack were taken.

So you might have cause to think I’m a little prejudiced. Nevertheless, I’m very happy to say that, on my shelves at least, A Sailor’s Life earns an honoured place alongside Songs of the Sea and Roy Palmer’s Boxing the Compass.

There’s a handy orderform here.

Short Sharp Shanties volume 1 is out

Yankee Jack John Short

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.

First of three Yankee Jack shanty CDs about to be launched

Yankee Jack John Short

The first of three CDs presenting the entire collected repertoire of the legendary Somerset shanty singer John ‘Yankee Jack’ Short will be launched at the end of May this year.

The songs were collected from the deep water sailor by the great folklorist Cecil Sharp in 1914. In all, Yankee Jack gave Sharp a total of 60 songs, 47 of which were included in Sharp’s influential book English Folk Chanteys.

Some of the sixty are familiar but others are rarer, and the songs not included in the book have remained unsung – until now.

Within the three CDs can be found everything from wild chants from the cotton ports of the Southern United States to texts of classic English folk songs, and from wistful contemplative laments to outright bawdiness.

Some of the shanties are believed to date from a very early point in shanty-singing.

All the songs on the CDs have been taken directly from Sharp’s manuscripts rather than from his book, with the aim of making them as close to Short’s versions as possible.

The genesis of the project was when well known singers Tom and Barbara Brown found the shanty Rosabella tucked away in one of Sharp’s manuscripts in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at Cecil Sharp House in London – they then passed the song on to friends including shanty singers Johnny Collins and Jim Mageean, and it quickly became popular among revivalist singers.

As well as Tom and Barbara, the performers on this disc on the WildGoose label include Jim Mageean, Keith Kendrick, Sam Lee, Jackie Oates, Roger Watson, Brian Willoughby and Jeff Warner, from the USA.

The CD is also dedicated to the memory of Johnny Collins, who would certainly have been involved in the project if he had not sadly died two years ago.

The launches of the first CD of the series are to be an invitation-only event on the evening of Tuesday 24th May at the Esplanade Club at Watchtet and at the Saturday afternoon of Chippenham Folk Festival at Chippenham in Wiltshire on the Whitsun bank holiday weekend.

The remaining CDs will be released as a double album later in the year.