Friday, March 20, 2009
Go To Sea Once More: "Haul Away, Joe"
There seems to be a national renascence of interest in our seagoing heritage occurring in the last few years, with an increased emphasis on preservation of some of the decaying and disappearing assets of the past (note restorations of sister ships the USS Constitution in Boston and the USS Constellation in Baltimore), rising attendance at maritime museums like the Mystic Seaport in CT and Nantucket as well as on the Great Lakes, the Outer Banks, San Francisco and Seattle on the West Coast, and as far away as the whaling memorials in Hawaii. And since the magnificent parade of the Tall Ships during the Bicentennial celebrations thirty plus years ago, the sight of square-rigged three masters and barks and schooners to frigates to training ships and replicas has become common during celebrations along US coastal waters.
Not surprisingly, there has been a renewal of interest in the songs of the Age of Sail, and that age produced quite a few, most of which despite the diversity of their origins and uses we categorize as "sea chanteys," the latter word clearly derived from the French chanter (chan-TAY), meaning "to sing." Reasons for this are harder to pin down, but I'd offer two. First, many are just so damned lovely (like "Shenandoah" or "Lowlands" or "Golden Vanity") and fun and easy to sing ("Blow The Man Down" and "I'll Go No More A-Roving" and "Drunken Sailor," to name a few) that someone in each generation will always find them and keep them alive. Second, the more rough-edged ones seem ideal for the wide variety of Irish and Celtic groups that form so huge a part of today's folk scene, second only in my informal national survey to bluegrass music among acoustic forms.
The Kingston Trio recorded no fewer than ten identifiable chantey (exclusive of sea-oriented calypsos like "Bimini" and "Sloop John B"), starting with "Santy Anno" (one of the first weekend videos I did, readable here) on the first album and ending with "Away Rio" on Something Special.
The Trio had a sort of formula for many of these. They would take the basic folk song and do a kind of traditional reading of the root song but then (reflecting, I think, their origin as a nightclub act) add a coda or an extra verse or a chord change to enhance the drama of the song. Consider the minor chords and prominent bass runs on "Santy Anno" or the coda-like addition of "This Boston town don't suit my notion" on "Bonny Hieland Laddie" - and the "east wind" part of today's number, "Haul Away" from Here We Go Again.
Though Wikipedia among others attempts to distinguish capstan chanteys from windlass chanteys from haul chanteys from fo'c'stle chanteys - they were all work songs, sung to accompany and make easier the backbreaking and extremely dangerous work of a deep-water sailor of long ago. While I'm sure that "Shenandoah" was sung as the windlass pulling up the anchor was cranked - it's hard not to imagine a group of the boys singing it at sunset in the tropics while resting, making it a fo'c'stle chantey as well - right before the melancholy of "The Water Is Wide."
"Haul A-weigh, Joe" is the proper name for today's song - aweigh as in "anchors aweigh" - pull it up and let's go - a capstan chantey if ever there was one, as the Clancys make clear below. The Kingston version, widely praised then and now though non-traditional, features the aforementioned dramatic interlude, with the shift to a major chord, furious energy, and really excellent frailing by Dave Guard. Here they are - from a phonograph recording:
with an excellent video interpretation by YouTube poster Munrow:
(Remember to toggle the little wheel bottom right when the video begins for HD - well worth doing so here.)
Here's a more traditional version from The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. Tom Clancy, fine actor that he was, does a creditable impersonation of the "chantey man" or lead singer on the work crew:
Among John Stewart's many hidden talents was that he was a marvelous mimic. He told the story at FC4 in 2003 of how he and Nick were at a Greenwich Village folk party at which an earnest young lady was trying to hush a boisterous crowd so that Theodore Bikel could sing some tender ballad or other (and Stewart's enactment of the girl was hilarious). But according to John, every time Bikel would start to sing, a wildly drunk Tom Clancy would begin to bellow "When I was a lit-tle boy-ee," as above. Stewart's imitation was perfect.
Clearly influenced by the Clancys but with a tempo closer to the Trio is this group from "Victory Sings At Sea" out of Seattle (also on the Santy Anno page). Forgive me for posting the creepy anime, but the song is great, and there's a fine bit of "Away, Rio" at the end:
And now for the patented Weekend Videos surprise. Who would have thought to find Lead Belly doing a really bluesy 12 string version of a sea chantey?? Here it is - strange, but it works:
For a truly unusual modern take on the song, here is the Clancys' lyric presented by Marc Anthony Thompson in a strange amalgam of southern white blues, four part harmony, and folk instrumentation (including possibly some bagpipes and maybe a didgeridoo) - sort of Tom Waits meets "The Gypsy Rover":
Finally - a KT-type uptempo version from a 2007 Minneapolis theatrical production called Or The White Whale:
I have to say that the availability of so many modern versions is something I find encouraging - I have loved these songs forever. I first heard "Haul Away" at the age of six or seven (pre-KT by several years) as incidental music on a two-sided early LP that was a spoken-word rendition of Stevenson's Treasure Island. That's more than fifty years ago - and I'm looking forward to its next incarnation.