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 Рread 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.

The rule of the road told in verses

SS Metapan sunk by the SS Iowan

SS Metapan sunk by a collision withthe SS Iowan; image from Popular Mechanics magazine published in 1915. Image placed on the Wikimedia by Pmcyclist


I found the following useful navigation rhymes in a book that Mike Smylie was kind enough to give me at the weekend – it previously belonged to his father. I’ve heard them before, notably from old Sam Larner, but haven’t seen them printed out. And as a bonus they came with some extra verses relating to sailing vessels.

The book is titled The Yachtsman’s Week End Book, written by John Irving and Douglas Service, and I think it’s a gem because of the way it opens a window into the different attitudes of the past. For example I particularly liked this quotation: ‘Four things shalt thou not see aboard a yacht for its comfort – a cow, a wheelbarrow, and umbrella and a naval officer.’

But back to the rhymes – they may be wrong in the current age, so please don’t take them as gospel. I can’t accept responsibility if you do!

Two steamships meeting:

When both lights you see ahead

Starboard wheel and show your red

Two steamships passing:

Green to green or red to red

Perfect safety, go ahead

Two steamships crossing:

If to your starboard red appear

It is your duty to keep clear

To act as judgement says is proper

To port or starboard, back or stop her

But when upon your port is seen

A steamer’s starboard light of green

There’s not much for you to do

For green to port keeps clear of you

However, all ships must keep a look-out and steamships must stop and go astern if necessary:

Both in safety and in doubt

Always keep a good look-out

In danger with no room to turn

Ease her, stop her, go astern

But these rules don’t work so well for sailing vessels. Instead, the following rhyme is proposed:

Now those four rules we all must note

Are no use in a sailing boat

As we’re dependent on the wind

Another set of rules we find

A close-hauled ship you’ll never see

Give way to one that’s running free

It’s easier running free to steer

And that’s the reason she keeps clear

With the wind the same side, running free

One’s to windward, one to lee

The leeward ship goes straight ahead

The other alters course instead

Both close-hauled or both quite free

On different tacks we all agree

The ship that has the wind to port

Must keep well clear, is what we’re taught

At other times the altering craft

Is the one that has the wind right aft


If the Bold Princess has sea-room, brave boys never fear!

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Perhaps the pre-eminent traditional British song about pirates

For more from on pirates, click here.