By Daniel Merrill
It’s June 23, and that means this weekend, we celebrate the International Day of the Seafarer! I know what you’re thinking… how on Earth did I forget (again)!? Well, I’ll cut you some slack; it’s easy to let it slip when the other major seafarer’s holiday, International Talk Like a Pirate Day, just around the corner. But we can’t let the landlubbers have all the fun, now can we?
I’ve spent quite a bit of time on boats. In 2014, my band, the Dead Rat Orchestra, undertook a tour of the UK’s waterways and canals on a boat called the Cut. The idea was to explore the musical heritage of the canals and waterways, which had largely fallen into disuse for the better part of 150 years before their restoration in the 1990s. Songs and boats have always made good companions, and not long into the journey, we found that out ourselves. There’s still a certain romance associated with the life of a boatman.
Then, in 2015, I took a “Semester at Sea” as a professor, traveling halfway around the planet and spending nearly four months living on a ship. As you can imagine, I brought along my violin.
These experiences of living on the water really piqued my interest in learning about the songs of the sea. There are many well-known, traditional sea shanties out there. Sea shanties were shipboard working songs, which served both an entertainment purpose for long voyages and a practical purpose — the rhythms helped crew members stay in sync when carrying out repetitive tasks like rowing or hauling in rope. Yet, there are just as many songs out there written to popularly commemorate stories of individuals and communities with links to life at sea.
So, for this seafarer’s holiday, I wish to introduce you to my favorite flotsam of sea songs I’ve recently come across.
1. “Poor Old Horse”
As is the case with many folk songs, there’s never a definitive version out there. I first heard “Poor Old Horse” as a canal song (in the late 1700s, horses were used to pull the canal barges), but it has many origins. One of the most fascinating uses of this song was as part of a maritime tradition marking the end of a boatman’s first month at sea! If that seems random, consider that that lucky seafarer would also be celebrating the first issuance of his pay and, therefore, the ability to purchase supplies (a.k.a., rum and beer).
By 1884, this tradition was already centuries old when the fascinating ritual was written about in this excerpt of Sir Richard Tangye’s Reminiscences of Travel in Australia, America, and Egypt:
“Being a month at sea, the sailors performed the ceremony called ‘Burying the Dead Horse,’ the explanation of which is this: Before leaving port, seamen are paid a month in advance, so as to enable them to leave some money with their wives or to buy a new kit, etc., and having spent the money, they consider the first month goes for nothing, and so call it ‘Working off the Dead Horse.’
The crew dress up a figure to represent a horse; its body is made out of a barrel, its extremities of hay or straw covered with canvas, the mane and tail of hemp, the eyes of two ginger beer bottles, sometimes filled with phosphorus. When complete, the noble steed is put on a box, covered with a rug, and on the evening of the last day of the month, a man gets on to his back and is drawn all round the ship by his shipmates…”
The above video features Johnny Collins, one of England’s leading voices in traditional maritime music. This video, though rough around the edges, has some excellent singing, manly beards, and amazing ’90s sweaters. If you want to join in, just holler, “And we say so, and we hope so” and, “Oh, poor old horse/man.”
+ Read more on Flypaper: “The Inimitable Van Dyke Parks: A Life’s Journey Through Song”
2. “The Sailboat Malarkey”
This one has really ended up in the strangest of places. Beyond becoming something of a folk standard, the song actually made it into the video game Assassin’s Creed 4. “The Sailboat Malarkey” eventually became known to wider audiences through singers like A.L. Lloyd with his 1974 version above, but it’s originally from the Bahamas where it was first recorded in the 1930s. In order to hear the joyful original version, sung by Frederick McQueen, which is where A.L. Lloyd learned the tune himself, you need to pick up a copy of the compilation album The Real Bahamas in Music and Song (2003).
This song was sung for launching boats, but its rhythm also lent itself well to coordinating the movements of operating a ship’s capstan.
3. “Shipping Song”
Here’s a modern one! The “Shipping Forecast” is a unique piece of British radio broadcasting used to inform seafarers of upcoming weather conditions. But because it’s so quintessentially “British,” it, of course, has celebrities lining up to do guest readings and has been sampled by acts such as the Prodigy and Beck. It condenses 24 hours of weather for all the seas around the UK into 350 words, creating baffling and weirdly poetic descriptions of weather patterns, such as “Viking Northwesterly 6 to gale 8, very rough, wintry showers, mainly good.”
In 2013, Lisa Knapp created a stunning and enigmatic tribute to the Shipping Forecast with her beautiful “Shipping Song” above.
+ Learn more on Soundfly: The New Songwriter’s Workshop is a course designed to help intermediate songwriters enhance their use of the foundational elements of songwriting with the goal of writing more powerful, unique music. Check it out today!
4. “Sloop John B”
For most of us, this song brings to mind the Beach Boys’ version, but the song’s origins actually reach back much farther. And again, we travel to the Bahamas. Though the transcription was first published in 1916, it was a much older popular folk song, and, as such, the Bahamians sing it like no one else… without the Beach Boys’ sanitized, contemporary lyrics.
Here I present one of my favorite versions, and perhaps the earliest surviving recording, a rather fantastic and fun interpretation by Blind Blake Higgs from 1952. Just listen to the words Blind Blake sings in the sixth verse:
“Sailboat go by sail, and steamboat go by steam.
Round Nassau Town we did roam.
Been drinking all night, and we got in a fight.
I feel so break up, I wanna go home.”
5. “The Captain’s Apprentice”
Not strictly a seafarers song, but one well known amongst those drawn to songs of the sea, “The Captain’s Apprentice” is a gallows confessional, a song admitting a crime committed for which the repentant criminal now faces execution. It’s haunted me since first reading the words in a collection by Cecil Sharpe and listening to a version set to music by Vaughan Williams. (Though, in honesty, Williams’ over-dramatic rendering of it is hard to listen to.)
It’s even more haunting knowing the song is tied to real events following a 19th-century whale skipper from King’s Lynn and the murder of his apprentice. It has also been described as the story of “work experience gone horribly wrong.” The brief narrative of the song is also fascinating as, through embellishment, it was extended into a full opera by Benjamin Britten, in one of his best-known works, Peter Grimes.
This grim song has enjoyed something of a revival, thanks to Bryan Ferry’s version of the song which appears on the popular compilation album Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, & Chanteys. There are several other excellent versions, including one by Dave Van Ronk, but the above version, courtesy of the Bitter Withy, is perhaps the most accessible.
6. “LITW (Life in the West)”
The term seafarer is not restricted to those who simply work at sea but extends to those who travel the seas to create a new life. Over the last few years, the world has witnessed a major humanitarian crisis as refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa cross the Mediterranean Sea in search of security in Europe. Afrikan Boy is Olushola Ajose, a Nigerian-born, London-grime artist who has performed at international refugee camps and whose music speaks of the experience of African migrants in Europe.
“LITW (Life in the West)” is one of the first tracks previewed from Afrikan Boy’s forthcoming 2017 album and explores these themes through a narrative around a woman named Falouka fleeing war and poverty by boat for Europe. There is wordplay at work here; Falouka is also Arabic for a small boat.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “Three Jazz Artists Harmoniously and Creatively Blending Arabic and Western Music”
7. “Sea Lion Woman/See-Line Woman”
There are many narratives to explain the origin of the sea-lion woman. Some refer to the mythical creature that lives in the sea as a sea lion, shedding its skin to become human on land and having dangerous seductive powers over humans, and these stories regularly end tragically. This see-line (or sea-line woman), however, has its roots in a 19th-century seafaring song from the port towns of the American South, referring to sex workers who would line the docks greeting ships as they came into port.
It’s been sung by tons of artists, including recently in a jazzed-up version by Laura Mvula. But my favorite one is this above: “See-Line Woman” sang not by bawdy sailors, but by the mystifying and powerful voice of Nina Simone, who released it in 1964 as the B-side to “Mississippi Goddam.”
8. “Lady Franklin’s Lament”
Legendary disasters often make it into song in some form or another, and this is very much the case for events that happened at sea. The doomed 1845 polar exploration to reach the Northwest Passage led to the death of its leader, Lord Franklin, and all 129 crew members. The whereabouts of the two ships remained a mystery until 2016, 168 years after their disappearance, when they were both discovered at the bottom of an arctic bay in Canada.
“Lady Franklin’s Lament,” first published as a broadside around 1850, has become a folk standard. Its poignant melody and touching lyrics beguiled many singers and inspired others — a famous example being the melody and lyric structure used to form the basis of “Bob Dylan’s Dream.” Once again, there are many fine versions of this tune worth hearing, but here, it’s performed by Pentagle, who helped to repopularize the song and story in the 1970s.
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Daniel Merrill is an educator, composer, and improvising violinist currently living in London. He co-founded the innovative folk-storytelling ensemble Dead Rat Orchestra, with which he tours worldwide, as well as many other solo and ensemble projects.