Friday, September 11, 2009

A-Whaling For To Go: "Blow Ye Winds In The Morning"

When I was a boy in the Midwest and a compulsive reader, I developed the greatest fascination for times and places that were part of my imaginative landscape only because the physical circumstance of living on the prairie didn't afford any real life contact with mountains or oceans. I was especially interested in two facets of American history that occurred in the same time frame in those places - the mountain men of the Rockies and the New England whalers.

The latter interest was stoked by the first volume of one of the most remarkable series of books ever written for children in this country, The Story of Yankee Whaling, from the American Heritage Junior Library. In the 50s and 60s (I assume before as well), American Heritage was almost unique among U.S. magazines. It was published in months alternate to its companion magazine, Horizon, in glossy paper, hard-covered volumes - the only magazines I can recall to be bound in such a way. The editor of AH was Bruce Catton, one of the foremost historians of his generation (the Civil War was his forte), and it was Catton who felt that American children should have books on U.S. history as sophisticated and beautiful as his magazine itself - and thus was born the Junior Library. Each volume - and there were eventually about 50 - were upwards of 150 pages, lavishly illustrated in both black and white and color, scrupulously researched and entertainingly written. They didn't talk down to children (aimed at the 9 to 12 age group) and were a delight to read and re-read.

Yankee Whaling came out in 1960, when I was ten, and it gave me a concrete understanding of the harsh lives of those who took to sea to hunt the great whales, whose oil (boiled down at sea from the whale's blubber) lit the street lamps and households of much of early America until the plentiful and more cheaply acquired petroleum of Pennsylvania supplanted it in the 1830s and brought the whaling days of Nantucket, New Bedford, and Mystic to an end. Most of what I knew of whaling before this book came from folk songs, two of which were already then my favorites and remain so til this very day, the Weavers' "Greenland Whale Fisheries" and the Kingston Trio's "Blow Ye Winds."

Alan Lomax included "Blow Ye Winds" in the same 1947 Folk Songs Of North America to which I've referred often before, and about fifteen early KT songs (including "Tom Dooley") appear in the book in arrangements very similar to those that the Trio used. Lomax calls this song a fo'c'sle chantey, one used to accompany ordinary sailors' tasks as opposed to the slower capstan chanteys like "Haul Away" that were used to time back breaking tasks like weighing anchor and hoisting sails. He also dates the original air to the Elizabethan era in the 1500s, so the tune was already old by the mid-1700s when American whalers got hold of it and turned it into the rousing number we know today.

The Kingston Trio's version on the album At Large from 1959 is one of the delights of their early albums. It features the high energy, perfect timing for uptempo songs that distinguished the Trio from nearly every other pop folk group. Two year banjo student Dave Guard acquits himself creditably with what sounds like his own unique modified frailing, and note that the clearest high voice on much of the song is Bob Shane, as it was on several songs on this album including "MTA":

Thanks to Dave Long for uploading a quality digital audio and fine video of the song.

Next - an Irish-American roots band, Siegan, performing the tune at The Down Home in Johnson City, TN on St. Paddy's Day, 2011. Note the unusual minor key accompaniment:

Water Street Bridge is what you might call neo-folk or modern folk, and they describe themselves as "Celtic, blues, Americana, shanty, jazz, Creole, folk, art rock, reggae, comedy and original songs into something that can only be described as “eclectic acoustic.” That would make them the perfect heirs to - the Kingston Trio. This is a fine and fun version of the song:

The Corries were a Scots trio (later duo) about the same age as the Kingstons, and their recording success in the UK in the 60s and 70s was a part of that country's folk revival whose stimulus was also in part the success of the KT. This is a different take on the song altogether:

The Black Irish Band is a northern California roots group who seem here to be doing more of the Dubliners' approach to the song than the KT's.

Finally, our special of the week. This is a solo performance from the Mermaid Inn in Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia on the evening of Tuesday March 10th 2009. The only problem - the videographer failed to get the singer's full name and identifies him simply as "Steve."*** Too bad - he does a fine job here:

I remember hearing the song in my mind as a sort of a soundtrack as I wandered through the pages of that excellent little book all those years ago....

***Note - 7/22/14  - It's taken 5 years, but we have a positive ID - he's Steve Stanislaw. Congratulations to him on a fine performance.

1 comment:

Pete Curry said...

Jim: The 1947 Lomax book was "Folk Song USA," not "Folk Songs of North America," which came out in 1960. And to my ear, Dave is using plain old frailing, not some modification thereof (same as on "Corey, Corey"). Regard, Pete Curry