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The singing Jack Crawford
Regular readers will remember a recent post about a press-ganged keelman who became a war hero, Jack Crawford, who climbed to the top of his ship’s damaged mast under heavy fire, and nailed the Union Jack to it. This important and astonishingly brave act won him an audience with King George III and a pension.
If you followed the link in the earlier post, you will know that there’s another Jack Crawford, a singer who has recently made a CD of largely traditional songs.
By an amazing coincidence, it turns out that one of them describes being press-ganged and then forced to fight at sea, and I’m glad to say that Jack’s considered performance is timed to make every word count.
My perspective of The Valiant Sailor is that it’s an important, eye-opening song with an understandably bitter point of view, and really should be heard by anyone with a romantic view of the Royal Navy of the time, warfare in the era of the wooden walls, or of press-ganging.
However, Jack has a different view of it, and as he sings this song (and I don’t) he’s obviously given it much more thought than I have. Here’s what he had to say in an email to me earlier:
‘You write of a “song with an understandably bitter point of view” and yet, when I sing it I feel no bitterness. Consider the closing sentiment “and here I lie a-bleeding all on the deck and it’s all for her sweet safety I must die.”
‘In my view, the sailor has become reconciled to his fate and he understands the necessity to defend his country at sea – and die in the process if that’s what the Fates decree. It’s not the life he chose and thread of the song is a linear narrative of how he came to be in that situation. As such, it’s far from romantic, but I don’t think it’s bitter. Granted, we have “thousands of times I’ve wished myself home” to make it quite clear (as if we were in any doubt) that he’s not enjoying himself, and who can blame him, but there’s no bitterness there. The dominant emotion is the sadness of his longing to return to his “Polly on the shore” and the stark realization that he never will.
‘I reprise the first verse to drive home the enormity of the events and serve as a warning to other young men – not from bitterness but as sound practical advice supported by a salutary lesson. I don’t think a song based on bitterness would have endured so well through changing times.’
I think this quality of enduring is significant. This is a song that remained in oral transmission right into the 20th century: more than a century after the events it describes, ordinary people still felt it had something of value that was worth remembering, even though the author was long forgotten to them. That, of course, is the real meaning of the term ‘folk song’.
Tonight, I think itâ€™s about time we had some music on the intheboatshed blog. Boating isnâ€™t just about boats and sheds, boatbuilding or restoration, or even about navigating your boat â€“ itâ€™s also about a rich tapestry of personalities and culture.So tonight we have sea songs from my old friend Keith Kendrick. I hope Keith wonâ€™t mind when I say that with his dangerous smile he has something piratical about him and that when he sings with his concertina, he looks every inch everyoneâ€™s idea of the old fashioned sailor man. Iâ€™m sure he wonâ€™t mind when I say heâ€™s a great singer of sea songs, as the MP3s Iâ€™m posting tonight will prove.
Ironically, Keith is a land-lubber by birth, originally hailing from the English county of Derbyshire and still living there today. Despite this, he did live on the East Kent coast for eight years where he was able to nurture more effectively an already strong leaning towards all things maritime. He has a long established and well documented history of performing and recording all kinds of music of the sea worldwide both solo and with various collaborations over forty years!
Keith is clearly passion-driven in his performance of sea shanties, fore-bitters and various other maritime related material including dance tunes on the English and Anglo concertinas.
He draws his influence from the old sailors and source singers of the material like: Stan Hugill (the last real shanty man), Bob Roberts and Cyril Tawney to name just three.
All of these three great singing heroes are now sadly gone and singers who have really studied their singing styles and songs, such as Keith, play an important role in carrying their legacy forward.
Listen in particular for the breaks and turns in his voice in the shanty set, for example â€“ theyâ€™re one of the keys to real shanty singing.
Here are two tracks from his latest CD on the Wildgoose label Songs from the Derbyshire Coast. The first is the shanty Bold Riley (Iâ€™ve read somewhere that itâ€™s a halyard shanty) and a set of three shanties, A Hundred Years Ago, Essiquibo River, and Rolling Down the Bay to Juliana. The files will take a moment to download but I can assure you that theyâ€™re well worth the short wait â€“ this is shanty singing with real class.
Bold Riley is a windlass shanty that started life making the sugar run from the West Indies to the UK. Who â€˜Rileyâ€™ was, unfortunately, is anybodyâ€™s guess.
A Hundred Years Ago is to one of two melodies commonly associated with this halyard Shanty from the USA – the other one is English in origin and both can be found in Stan Hugillâ€™s seminal book, â€˜Shanties From The Seven Seasâ€™. Two other shanties: â€˜A Long Time Agoâ€™ and â€˜Leave Her Johnny Leave Herâ€™, share the same metre and are likely its two closest relatives.
The name of the Essiquibo River gives away the West Indian origins of this song â€“ it would likely have been used originally inland for heavy shifting work and would have been lead by a Negro â€˜shantymanâ€™ eventually finding itâ€™s inevitable way to sea where itâ€™s use would need little adaptation. I take this at a slightly faster lick than it would have been sung in a working context.
Among the shanty set, I guess Rolling Down the Bay to Juliana, sometimes called Emma, is probably the least well known. It’s nevertheless one of the best halyard shanties around, and Keith tells me he believes it was collected in the early 1950s by folklorist A L Lloyd from ex-sailor Ted Howard. Ted, it is said, was on his death bed in a sailorsâ€™ hospital surrounded by all his shipmates when he sang this to Mr Lloyd. Apparently, his dying words were ‘Strike up South Australia and let me die happy!’
Songs from the Derbyshire coast is available here:
More songs from Keith and friends:
A song from me:
Photo by Andrew D C Basford (2006)