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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.
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