I could say it was the whaling genre that got me to buy this album, or the allusion to Moby Dick, or the inclusion of “Greenland Whale Fisheries” that made me buy this album. But honestly, it was the yellow and blue cover that caught my eye and made me buy this. It was $3.00, perhaps $2.40 if I got it on discount. I can not remember exactly.
But for what ever reason, I bought this and fell in love with it as soon as I heard it. “The Mermaid Song”, in particular, caught my ear and after two days, I threw it in to my guitar repertoire. Anyway, this album, released by Tradition Recordings in 1956, takes some of the more popular whaling songs, most known and referenced by Melville and displays them in this collection.
It is kind of odd when you sit down and think of it, but singing was an integral part of a seaman’s life back in the day. There were all types of songs for all types of jobs, varying in length to reflect the various jobs. These songs also varied in mood and emotion. A sailor who could sing well could stand to gain great respect from his captain and crew.
Paul Clayton, born in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1931, was a folk singer who gained popularity during the folk revival of the 60’s as well as the Greenwich Village Scene. Although he collected tunes from various places including the Appalachians, his New England upbringing lent himself to become a purveyor of whaling and sailing songs. He became friendly and even a mentor to a young Bob Dylan. However, when Clayton’s publishing company found that Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice Its Allright” sounded too much like one of Clayton’s own compositions, the two companies met in court. It was found that Clayton’s song came from an earlier song which was in the public domain, so the lawsuit was settled out of court. The two artists remained friends after this up until 1967, when beset with personal problems, Clayton took his own life with an electric heater in a bathtub. He was only 36.
This record is an excellent collection of sea shantys, done in a bare bones fashion with little instrumentation save a guitar. The record has a summary of the song on the back cover as well as a little history and why and where the song was sung. All together, really great songs.
For samples, I went with a couple of songs. First off, one of the oldest shanties, “The Maid Of Amsterdam” tells the story of a sailor who meets a fair maid who pinches his money. The second song, “The Mermaid” (Child 289) was one of Melville’s favorites and quoted in his novel White Jacket. As mermaids were known as harbingers of doom, this song tells the story of such an encounter.
“Greenland Whale Fisheries”, which was one of the reasons I bought this album, is presented here as well. I have noted with this song as did the liner note writer that there are two variants of this song. In some versions, the captain, although pained by the losing of the whale, grieves more for the loss of his crew. In versions such as the Pogues’, the two are switched which is perhaps more realistic. The Dubliners have actually gone both ways with this, which begs the question; was human life more or less valued back then as compared to now? Well, just like today, it probably depends whose life? Anyway, which version does Clayton choose? You will have to listen for yourself.
Finally, here is a number dating back from days after the death of Napoleon, “Boney Was A Warrior”. This short drag song was used for sweating up the halyards at the end of a long pull.
Anyway, real good album. Satisfactory.