Old Sailor-Poets: Sea Songs

These nautical songs are primarily adapted from poems of old sailor-poets of the late 19th or early 20th century. Such poets actually sailed on the tall sailing ships of their time, either before the mast as ordinary seamen or as apprentices training to be officers. The primary exception to this rule is the poet Cicely Fox Smith who was not an actual sailor but learned to speak the sailor's language so convincingly that many of her contemporaries assumed she was a man and had served before the mast.

There are also several contemporary songs included that aptly demonstrate that traditional nautical themes still inspire people of our generation to compose songs that compare well with the vintage ones.

Then there are a few other songs whose primary purpose is to aid the fermentation process in this recording.

Track Notes

Bound Away – A poem composed by old sailor-poet Bill Adams (UK & US), I readily adapted it for singing by using the traditional Liverpool Packet capstan shanty tune and incorporating its chorus. This is a joyful song that could have been belted out by the young apprentice lads on their first voyage. Adams was just such an apprentice lad in the 1890's, before he was forced ashore for health reasons.

A Pier-Head Chorus – Another fine setting out song based on a poem by the well known old sailor-poet John Masefield (UK). I've adapted it for singing by making use of a tune inspired by the 19th century gospel song Little Black Train. Masefield also served as an apprentice lad on tall sailing ships.

Tasman Buster – Composed by Bob Watson (UK), © 1984 ROM Watson, and used with permission. A "Tasman Buster" is a sudden squall prevalent in the Tasman Sea, between Tasmania and New Zealand. This song has a great rousing chorus and you learn a little about the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman as well!

The Chantey of the Cook – This "chantey" is based on a poem by old sailor-poet Harry Kemp (US) which I adapted for singing by making use of the traditional shanty song Huckleberry Hunting. It's one of the few sailor poems which demonstrates a class awareness. Kemp sailed for years as a regular fo'c'sle crew member.

Sea Cook – This song is based on another poem by Bill Adams which I adapted for singing, creating a chorus in the process. I like the positive image of the old sailor who despite the fact he is now relegated to being cook can still help with the lines and lead a shanty when the going gets tough.

Merchants Island – Based on an old drinking song collected by the Dennis Puleston family from fishermen in Stonington, Maine, back in 1964. The tune is similar to the A-part of the traditional dance tune My Love is But a Lassie Yet and I've added a chorus which re-incorporates the B-part of that tune, and then added some new verses. My chorus is inspired by a recurring phrase "kicking up Bob's a-dying" from the Captain Jack Aubrey Napoleonic war series by Patrick O'Brian that historically means raising Hell ashore.

The Tattooed Lady – This song composed by Walter O'Keefe was first recorded by Rudy Vallιe and His Connecticut Yankees in 1934, with the refrain being credited to Vallιe and Chorus. It is a touching song of love, lust, and betrayal, but subsequent redemption.

Bumboats – A fine poem by old sailor-poet Burt Franklin Jenness which I was able to adapt for singing. It is the only poem that I've found which pays tribute to those floating entrepreneurs who still service boats coming into port all over the world, and in this song the West Indies. The Calypso style chorus is in the original poem. Jenness himself served in the U.S. Navy as a medical officer in World War 1.

The Salvage Men – Composed by ex-Coastguardsman Joe McGrath, © 1986, whom I met in the Portland Folk Club in the 1980's. I revised the tune and did some minor rewording; my tune was inspired by Gordon Bok's Brandytree but appears to have strayed. It's a chilling song about the predatory wreckers who used to frequent some coasts.

A Ballad of John Silver – A somewhat nostalgic pirate poem composed by John Masefield which I've adapted for singing, inspired by the traditional tune The Range of the Buffalo. It's a curious mixture of grim reality and wistful thinking.

Neptune's Daughter – Here's a different take on women and the call of the sea, composed by Bob Watson, © 2003 ROM Watson, used with permission. I especially like the Appalachian style tune. As with all good ballads, one is left to wonder about the details of the story.

Sailor Town – This nostalgic song is based on a poem by Cicely Fox Smith (UK), who though not actually a sailor learned to speak convincingly with a sailor's voice. The poem was originally adapted for singing by Dick Miles (UK), © 1989, used with permission, one of the first contemporary nautical singers to rediscover this poet. The setting is most likely Victoria, British Columbia, where Smith resided for nine years in the early 1900's.

Shipmates (1914) – This poem by C. Fox Smith may be more evidence of the relationship between her and her favorite nautical informant, a shantyman whom she identified as "Dan." I like to think that it was composed as Dan was going back to sea and she was being very brave about his departure. My tune is inspired by the traditional ballad I Know Where I'm Going. We never learn for sure whatever happened to "Dan" but evidently Smith never met him again and remained unmarried.

A Ship in a Bottle – I've always been fascinated by ships-in-bottles, each its own mysterious miniature nautical world. Then, upon re-reading this poem by C. Fox Smith, I realized that the final verse held more clues to her relationship with her old shipmate "Dan" and I had to set it to music. I made good use of the tune from the traditional Irish ballad The Old Orange Flute. The last few lines make a fine chorus.

Sea Dreams – Seldom have I read such striking nautical images as those by Burt Franklin Jenness, as are amply illustrated in this poem. It has become one of my favorite songs. I used an Appalachian style tune in adapting this one for singing and it seems to work perfectly.

Mid-Watches – I set this haunting poem by Jenness to music in memory of an old merchant mariner and musician friend, Joe Theriault, who died recently; I then sang it at his memorial service. However, I've found that I'm still singing it and it has been well received wherever I play it. The chorus tune is inspired by Night Rider's Lament by Michael Burton while the verse tune is from Song for Gale by Larry Kaplan. What a fine combination!

The Long Road Home – C. Fox Smith most likely composed this poem as she reflected back on her departure from Victoria, British Columbia, perhaps aboard such a tall sailing ship, for her return to England on the eve of World War 1. Peter Massey (UK) did a fine job of setting this poem to music, © 2005, used with permission. I did some further revision of Smith's words but I love Massey's musical arrangement. It makes a fine hard-driving song full of high spirits.

- Charlie Ipcar, 2007

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