Hard to believe that it has taken me more than three years to get around to discussing "Greenland Whale Fisheries," since for more than fifty years it has been likely my favorite of all folk songs, in large part because of the memories that hearing it stirs - more on that at the end. But it's just a damned fine song any way you look at it, and a very old one at that - which of course means, as we'll see shortly, that it has lent itself to a greater-than-usual variety of interpretations.
Almost two years ago, I did a piece here on "Blow Ye Winds In The Morning" - another fine 19th century whaling song, but one that differs fundamentally in its intent and affect from "Greenland." "Blow ye Winds" is a commercial, a recruiting poster - "they say you'll take five hundred whales/Before you're six months out..." and hence make quite a bit of money from the shares of the profit (while having a very good time, if you look at the rest of the lyric). But "Greenland" is a song that is much older, harder, and tougher - more of a commentary on what kind of adventures actually faced the whalemen out there (and there is more about that in the "Blow Ye Winds" article linked above). The portrait of the whaling life in this song is grim at best, and the minor chords in the accompaniment serve to underscore the melancholy tale being told.
"Greenland Whale Fisheries" has, as noted, many variant versions, but there are several common motifs that go back to the very earliest published arrangement of the song from about 1725 (Oxford's Bodelian Library copy here - scroll to the right): a month, day and year specified early in the song, a whaling ship bound for the "Greenland ground," a brave captain and an eagle-eyed lookout, a chase, the whale's "flunder" capsizing a boat and killing several men, the captain's regret (though over what varies interestingly), the seamen's bitter desire to leave the "dreadful place" forever. It is a compelling narrative, one derived from the terrible conditions and dangerous circumstances in which the men lived and worked.
As usual, The Weavers and Burl Ives are most responsible for giving this song a second life in the mid-20th century, and The Weavers arrangement is the first one that I heard, around 1961. I'd love to present it here, but YouTube has been getting a bit hinky with me over all of my uploads for this series - so with a great deal of temerity, a bit of hesitation, and a gulp, I will present my own version first. It is almost word-for-word and chord-for-chord replication of what The Weavers did with the song, though needless to say without the superb professionalism that characterized their work. What I have especially emphasized is a) the moderate pace of the Weavers version, and b) the Seeger/Hellerman idea of framing the basic song with a part of a slower lament that they learned from collector Alan Lomax, who found it in Barbados (not a great whaling area, oddly). This is an analog recording done on a Korg 4 track tape machine, recorded in one take per track with no digital ability to fix the mistakes - it's not The Weavers, but who is?
Now, The Weavers had the captain mourning the loss of the men more than the whale - I changed it because I liked the way that Theo Bikel did the song, with the heartless captain grieving over his lost profits. Heartless captains are rather more the rule than the exception in sea folk songs anyway. Here is Bikel with Judy Collins at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival:
Note that Collins and Bikel are following the Seeger/Hellerman arrangement but presenting the first go around of the Barbadian fragment as an instrumental.
Paul Clayton, profiled here a couple of weeks ago, also maintains a fairly moderate pace in his simple but effective treatment of the tune:
But "Greenland Whale Fisheries" has also been performed over the years as a very quick, high-energy, rollicking chantey, and for me the prototype of that version is this recording from the Chad Mitchell Trio:
Canadian-Irish Ryan's Fancy tried something similar but with two distinct disadvantages - they didn't have the trained vocalists Mitchell, Kobluk, and Frazier of the CMT, and they didn't have the Mitchell group's Paul Prestopino on banjo. They gave it a good go, though:
"Greenland" is still covered widely today, though unfortunately IMHO in the ragged and rocking version popularized by the Pogues, here from 1984:
There is an absolute tribe of other so-called Celtic groups who riff off of this arrangement for reasons beyond me. The raggedness doesn't make it more authentic; traditional English ballads like this were nearly always performed at a very moderate pace.
For me, other artists have far more interesting approaches - like eclectic genius Van Dyke Parks, who did an album of sea chanteys in 2006 and provides instruction in how you can update and rockify a trad folk song with sensitivity and skill:
Or AnnaLee Rockinsquirrel on harp:
Or Scotland's legendary Corries, who sound like three Tommy Clancys with a burr instead of a brogue:
"Greenland Whale Fisheries" was one of the first songs I learned to play on the guitar - I could add that it was one of the songs that influenced me to want to play guitar. It became a standard part of spontaneous family singalongs going back to the early '60s - singalongs that originated out of necessity. My family rented a place in a remote area of northern Michigan for a few weeks each summer. We were beyond the reach there of anything that had to be transmitted over radio and microwaves, and in that pre-digital epoch before cable and satellite we had to create whatever entertainment we wanted to enjoy. All ten of the Moran children were musical to some degree or other - but it was in the heart of the folk boom, and even in my early adolescent desire To Be Alone, I could not start playing songs for myself anywhere inside or outside without attracting a sibling or two - and eventually the whole passel of them with the parents to boot. We always seemed to close those sessions with the melancholy version of "Greenland" at the head of this essay - very Irish of us, I suppose. Fast forward to 2001, forty years down the road. Our mother has died, leaving us finally in middle age, orphans. The ten of us are assembled in the library of the house most of us had grown up in, a house to be put on the market the next day. We spend a long evening of drinks and laughs and songs and reflection - and as two o'clock hour approaches, with most of the "younger" ones ready to go to bed, the four or five oldest of us spontaneously begin to sing "Greenland Whale Fisheries." It is our last act as a family in the family home. That, after all, is the kind of thing folk songs are all about - and "Greenland Whale Fisheries" served the purpose handsomely.