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Gibb Sahib Best book of sailor/sea/shanties songs? (19) RE: Best book of sailor/sea/shanties songs? 26 Aug 18


I recommend the underrated and overlooked _Songs of Sea Labour_ (1914) by Bullen and Arnold.

It is a collection of songs (with tunes), with just a bit of commentary in the beginning.

This collection is recommended if your interest is specifically chanties (this is the spelling used by the authors). The authors made their best efforts to limit the collection to chanties only. It was only through pressure of the publisher that they were made to include two songs from outside the genre, which are clearly marked, and they make their objection known.

Frank Bullen, a Briton, is responsible for all of the items, which he reproduced them as he used them as an actual chantyman during what was perhaps the zenith of chanty singing (as shipboard practice), the late 1860s through 1870s.

Bullen's presentation is the most honest, in my opinion, of nearly any presenter of chanties in a non-academic, "collection" format. His collection represents a realistic sample of the repertoire sung by a chantyman of that time period. By contrast, while Hugill purports to limit his collection to work-songs and chanties only, he throws in everything including the kitchen sink so long as he can find *somebody* even hinting somewhere (if Wikipedia existed in those days it would have been fair game) that the song was a chanty. He collapses all the time periods as well, and the resulting picture is not representative of the historical chanty repertoire.

While Hugill's authority as a sailor is often touted as an appeal to authority about his book's statements, he was a sailor after the shipboard chanty practice was more or less dead, and, like academic folklorists, was in large part a *collector* of chanties. A healthy chunk of the book entails simple collating of texts published elsewhere, often with insufficient critique of those sources.

Bullen, as a chantyman in practice during the heyday, understood the truly improvisational nature of chanties which appears yet to be inscrutable to Folk Revival performers coming from a particular perspective on what tradition entails. As such, he also stood firm in refusing to offer more than one verse of a song, so as not to give the illusion that the verses were fixed. To contrast Hugill again: Hugill certainly accepted the *variable* nature of the chanty genre, but presented it so as to give more the impression that people sing differently because of the so-called "folk process." When he wrote his book, he freely composed texts—in some cases, as a chantyman would freely compose verses in the moment—yet by setting them down in length/detail he has created the illusion (we can can observe in Folk Revival performances) that Bullen sought to avoid.

The one drawback to the book is that the musicologist with whom Bullen partnered. Arnold, was a bit too literal in some of the transcriptions of Bullen's singing. So, a few of the tunes look overly complicated in rhythm or overly chromatic in pitch. I suppose Arnold took haphazard variations / inconsistencies / mistakes in Bullen's singing performance at face value—which is OK if one is making a document of what Bullen sang, but which doesn't work as a text to sing from. (In these cases, one has to read between the lines.)

Bullen's work was indirectly critiqued by Cecil Sharp—who admit's he'd never heard a chanty sung on a ship—for what he believed was undue credit to African-American culture's "influence" on the chanty genre. (Compare Bullen, who learned his first chanties from Afro-Caribbean stevedores in Guyana.) Cicely Fox Smith directly dismissed Bullen's work by saying that he had "n***er on the brain." In hindsight, these comments were narrow-minded. Mullen was a white Briton who learned to perform in the chanty style as today's white Britons learn to perform Blues. The difference is that today's Blues performers have a sense of the cultural history of their genre, whereas in 1914 writers on chanties—Bullen excluded—were cherry-picking traits of English text and melody in the chanty genre that are shared with English culture (or one part of the synthesis that is "African-American culture") and using that to support their biases.


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