Songs of the sea

When our distant ancestors felled the first tree to make the first sea-worthy boat they couldn’t possibly know they were marking the beginning of what would become global travel. For tens of thousands of years the only way to breach the shoreline was by boat, and the only voyages undertaken were sailing across the sea. Think Vikings. Think Traders. Pirates. Explorers. Christopher Columbus, and our very own Captain James Cook.

Sea-shanties were the musical soundtrack to these voyages, and surely must be the earliest examples of the travel-song. Often call and response, rhythmically they matched the activity speed of the men hauling on lines. Work songs, they served to synchronize the movements of the sailors as they toiled. They also often provided an outlet for sailors to express their opinions in a way that would not cause punishment. Many of them were obscene: full of stories of drunkenness, whores, and the clap, but many were very beautiful. The best sea-shanties were those imbibed with a sense of what it was to be rolling on the sea. The adventure, discovery, romance, loneliness, hardship, and homesickness.

Gore Verbinski, Director of Pirates of the Caribbean, summed up the powerful nature of the sea-shanty when he said – “The ocean: it’s all about the vast blue that engulfs two-thirds of the planet. The human being cast against that abyss creates an interesting perspective. I think the sailors of that time were flirting with death, and these were their tunes. They resonate with people on some internal level that is not immediately obvious because it’s not in our memory, it’s in our blood. It operates on a cellular level. It’s what makes us feel so alone.”

Rogue_GallerySea-shanties aren’t sung anymore on ships. Modern day rigging just doesn’t need a lot of people working in the same rhythm for long periods of time. Like a lot of folk songs they had become almost obsolete, lost in the realms of obscure archives and sea-shanty enthusiasts, until music producer Hal Willner was asked to create a modern-day compilation. He spent several years researching and collecting songs, and then assembled a ragtag group of notable musicians to record them. The result was ‘The Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys’, an album performed by an eclectic array of artists, including Sting, Nick Cave, Bryan Ferry, Bono, Lou Reed, Antony, Rufus Wainwright, Teddy Thompson, Eliza Carthy, and Jarvis Cocker.

Many of the songs on the Rogue’s Gallery contain elements traditionally attributed to other types of music, and with the often anarchic lyrics they are sometimes even borderline punk. Nick Cave bellows wildly about the ‘fire down below,’ a mixed up reference to both hell and the clap, while Teddy Thompson sings of rolling all night and rolling all day to spend his money on Sally Brown. Whoever this ‘bright mulatto’ Sally Brown was, she certainly went down in history, turning up in a whole array of different sea-songs. Not bad for a woman of the night!

Place also plays a big part in the songs of the sea. Baby Gramps growls, (in a voice reminiscent of Tuvan throat singing), about the ‘Cape Cod Girls’ – ‘they don’t use no combs … comb their hair with the cod-fish bone, on their way to Australia.’ While the Barbary Coast has a whole song dedicated to it: ‘Look down along the coast of High Barbary…’

Arguably the most lyrically entertaining of the Rogue’s Gallery songs is entitled ‘Baltimore Whores,’ and involves a drawn out competition between four whores. ‘There were four whores from Baltimore, drinking the blood-red wine … and all their conversation was – yours is smaller than mine.’ As the song progresses, the descriptions become more and more inventive, moving from –“You’re a liar said the first whore, mine’s as big as the air. The birds fly in, the birds fly out, and never touch a hair’ to ‘You’re a liar said the last whore, mine’s the biggest of all. The fleet sailed in on the first of June, and didn’t come back till Fall.’ It is not very often that you hear women arguing about the largeness of such private areas!

Bono’s powerful rendition of ‘A Dying Sailor to his Shipmates’ brings us back to the adventurer’s elemental dance with death – ‘Oh, wrap me in my country’s flag, and lay me in the cold blue sea. Let the roaring of the waves, my solemn requiem be …I’m bound above, my course is run. I near the port, my voyage is done …’

Listening to this modern take on sea songs brings up many questions, the most interesting for the traveller being – has anything much really changed in the voyaging game? These songs speak of revelry, sex, discovery, transformation, loss, longing, and the journey into the unknown. All things familiar to the intrepid traveller. Italian writer Cesare Pavese claimed that “travelling forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all the familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off-balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” Sounds somewhat like a sea voyage!

Perhaps at the heart of all travel is the seeking of a new story. A new adventure, a new start. Sea shanties tell stories of long forgotten loves, famous battles, pirates, a longing for home (or the freedom from it), and the inescapable drive for adventure. An old roving sailor once said to me – ‘There are only three kinds of people: the living, the dead, and those who go to sea.’ But I think the American novelist Catherynne M. Valente says it best in her book The Orphan’s Tales: “It is not the sea that calls us back. What calls is stronger and more inexorable than any current. I long for the sea, yes, my skin is always dry, and I am always thirsty, and I miss the crash and swell of the black waves, but more, I long for the leaving. I am restless, I am ready, and the leaving whispers to me at night. It says that I will breathe easier when I am at the start of a story, rather than at the end.”

First published in get lost magazine, September 2010.