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.



A man called John Short

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John Short, otherwise known as Yankee Jack, sitting on the breakwater at Watchet

John Short, otherwise known as Yankee Jack, sitting on the breakwater
at Watchet. Thanks to the EFDSS/Cecil Sharp Collection for
allowing us to use this image

John Short statue by the harbur at Watchet

The John Short statue by the harbour at Watchet

Still on the theme of Watchet, I’d like to introduce readers to a man I hadn’t even heard of until my parents decided to buy a holiday cottage in the little town some years ago.

My ignorance that was my loss. John Short is commemorated in Watchet as Yankee Jack (he earned the nickname sailing in Yankee ships during the American Civil War) and is remembered for being a great seaman. However, he was an even greater singer: Yankee Jack had a tremendous memory and had learned many songs during a widely-travelled seagoing career. In fact, he provided the English folk song collector Cecil Sharp with a splendid collection of sea songs and shanties, many of which have become the standard versions we still know today.

These days, John Short the sailor and singer is represented by a fine statue by the harbour in Watchet, but I think his greatest memorial must be the songs, which from Sharp he sang in fine style with lots of melisma – that is, frequent changes of note within syllables. I only wish I knew of recordings that we could hear!

There’s an impressive list of his songs at the English Folk Dance & Song Society website.