Sleeve Notes for Short Sharp Shanties Vol. 1 by John Short
This is the first of three CDs which record the repertoire of John Short – a.k.a. Yankee Jack – of Watchet, Somerset in England’s West Country, who, in 1914, gave the folk-song collector Cecil Sharp nearly sixty shanties, several in early rare versions. John spent over fifty years working in sailing boats, much of his younger days in deep-water ships, sailing all around the world as a shantyman. He was born in 1839; went to sea with his father when he was nine; went deep sea at eighteen; married and retired from the deep water trade in his mid-thirties and died when he was ninety-two, in 1933.
Sung by: Jim Mageean, Jeff Warner, Keith Kendrick, Jackie Oates, Roger Watson, Sam Lee, Brian Willoughby, Tom Brown, Barbara Brown, Doug Bailey.
Sharp said of him:
“He has the folk-singer’s tenacious memory and… very great musical ability. His voice is rich, resonant and powerful, yet so flexible that he can execute trills, turns and graces with a delicacy and finish that would excite the envy of many a professional artist. Mr. Short has spent more than fifty years in sailing-ships and throughout the greater part of his career was a recognised chanteyman, i.e. the solo-singer who led the chanteys. It would be difficult, I imagine, to find a more experienced exponent of the art of chantey-singing, and I account myself peculiarly fortunate in having made his acquaintance in the course of my investigations and won his generous assistance.”
We have kept closely to the tunes that John sang to Cecil Sharp and also used the verses he sang – although he usually only sang a couple and explained that, unless there was actually a story-line, verses were improvised at the time. The titles of the shanties are given as they were recorded in Cecil Sharp’s field note books. Evidently, John Short did always tell him a title – several are better known by the title in brackets.
Fuller and more detailed information on each shanty - mss. no., chorus and musician names, version comparisons, how the recordings were arrived at, etc. - can be found on the web at www.umbermusic.co.uk/SSSnotes.htm.
1. Sing Fare You Well - Keith Kendrick
Not to be confused with Goodbye, Fare Thee Well – that’s homeward bound, this is outward! This waltz-time capstan song probably originated as a Negro work-song.
2. The Blackball Line - Roger Watson
Short told Sharp he used this as a capstan shanty – other collectors give it variously for every job going! The Blackball Line was the first line of transatlantic packets to run regular, twice monthly, trips across the pond and had a fearsome reputation for discipline. William Tapscott was an agent for the Blackball Line (and others) until he and his brother started their own – Tapscott’s Line – we’ll meet him again in the next shanty.
3. Mr. Tapscott - Sam Lee
The tune here is New York Girls (originally Larry Doonan) but the text is a widespread story often called The Irish Girl or Yellow Meal and sung to a different shanty – Heave Away Me Johnny. The Tapscotts were a Minehead (the next town to Watchet) family, but their business was arranging emigrant passages – William worked from Liverpool, and James from New York - until William was found guilty of fraud in 1849 and sentenced to thee years’ penal servitude.
4. A Hundred Years on the Eastern Shore - Jeff Warner
Widely known these days, this shanty is rarer in the early collections than one might expect, although Hugill thinks it might be the shanty referred to by Dana, in Two Years Before the Mast, as Time For Us to Go. Whatever its age or origin, it’s a fine halyards shanty with plenty of verse/chorus overlap!
5. Fire! Fire! (Fire Down Below) - Jackie Oates
A popular pumping shanty. It seems to originate in a stage minstrelsy song although, as a shanty, the text is pure sailor! It could last, if necessary, as long as you could think of bits of the ship to set light to.
6. Hanging Johnny - Tom Brown
Another halyards shanty. There is some disagreement between published collections as to whether the shantyman was hangman or merely commentator – John Short, certainly, did not cast himself in the role of hangman.
7. Rio Grande - Roger Watson
An extremely widespread and popular outward-bound capstan shanty. Short’s version, as so often, has minor variations to the most popular version of later years. It probably refers to the Rio Grande de Sul in Brazil rather then the Mexican Rio Grande. Roger gives it an almost fo’c’s’le feel – and certainly wistful, if not melancholic.
8. Cheerly Man - Barbara Brown
John Short told Cecil Sharp that this was the first shanty he learnt. It is a very primitive shanty – barely more than crying-out – and Short’s version is unusual in having only three lines to the verse instead of the more common four. This version of the text is for catting the anchor.
9. Poor Old Man (Johnny Come Down to Hilo) - Keith Kendrick
A capstan shanty that goes under a variety of names including: O Wake Her O Shake Her, Girl with the Blue Dress On, as well as Johnny Come Down To Hilo, etc. Probably Negro in origin. The Dead Horse verses would eventually become associated only with the Dead Horse Ceremony but in earlier days, it would seem, its use was broader.
10. The Bully Boat (Ranzo Ray) - Tom Brown
Another capstan shanty often called Ranzo Ray. It probably originated from Negro chants that were used in the Southern USA ‘cotton ports’ to work the jack-screws that compressed cotton bales into the holds of ships. These songs often started with the crews of the river-boats that brought the bales of cotton down rivers like the Mississipi or the Alabama to coastal ports like New Orleans or Mobile.
11. Stormalong John (Stormy Along, John) - Jim Mageean
One of many shanties that celebrate, or at least refer to, the archetypal sailor Stormy, or Stormalong. Short’s version is a beautiful example of the fact that a tune does not have to have musical bars all the same length in order to give a consistent working rhythm.
12. Blow Boys Blow (Banks of Sacramento) - Tom Brown
More usually known as the Banks of Sacramento, Short’s first verse of this capstan shanty is a direct sailor’s borrowing from the minstrel song Camptown Races – although it is debatable whether Stephen Foster’s song came first or the Hutchinson Family’s Banks of the Sacramento – either way, this shanty was a favourite at sea.
13. Carry Him to the Burying Ground (General Taylor) - Sam Lee
Another shanty that refers to Stormy. Despite its popularity in recent years, this is a rare shanty in the collections. The extraordinary melodic lines of the shantyman’s lead, in what might be regarded as ‘chorus’, were, with difficulty, meticulously notated by Sharp, and are virtually impossible to replicate in performance – Sam has followed the style rather than the exact notation. Other shantymen tend to sing a very simplified version – or give it all to the crew as chorus.
14. Bulgine Run (Let the Bulgine Run) - Barbara Brown
John Short called two of his shanties Bulgine Run – this capstan shanty is better known as Run, Let the Bulgine Run to distinguish it from Clear the Track, Let the Bulgine Run also known as Liza Lee. Short gave this to Sharp as a capstan shanty although, given the elaborate second shantyman’s line, its structure is that of a halyards song.
15. Shallow Brown - Jim Mageean
Short’s words are more usually associated, in the revival, with Blow, Boys, Blow. This is an intriguing version, with Sharp notating it varying between 2:4 and 3:4. It’s a hauling shanty and Jim nails it down completely – it couldn’t sound any other way!
16. Won’t You Go My Way? - Jeff Warner
Another rare shanty – only Hugill gives a version other than John Short’s. Almost certainly Negro in origin. Short told Sharp that it was used for screwing cotton in the cotton ports – but he used it at sea for hauling.
17. Blow Boys, Come Blow Together (Blow, Me Bully Boys, Blow) - Keith Kendrick
It’s a toss-up whether this shanty started life in the packet ships or in the Guinea slave trade, based around the Congo River. It was certainly a widespread and popular shanty and the different versions vary very little.
18. Tommy’s Gone (Tommy’s Gone Away) - Jackie Oates
A beautiful variant of the shanty Tom’s Gone To Ylo, but quite distinct in tune and feeling. Apart from Short’s version, Hugill is the only other published source, his version coming from a South Wales seaman. There is also a version collected by Carpenter from Barry docks. Thus all the known versions come from the Severn estuary – even so, Short told Sharp it was used for cotton screwing at Mobile Bay.
S&A Projects and WildGoose Records are grateful for assistance and support for this project from Chris Roche: The Shanty Crew, Jeff Wesley: Whittlebury Song & Ale, Hilary Bix, and the performers themselves.
Our thanks for help also go to Malcolm Taylor and staff of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at Cecil Sharp House, where we were able to work from the original manuscripts.
Photographs of John Short and Cecil Sharp courtesy of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.
Design: Hilary Bix
1 Sing Fare You Well
2 The Blackball Line
3 Mr. Tapscott
4 A Hundred Years on the Eastern Shore
5 Fire! Fire! (Fire Down Below)
6 Hanging Johnny
7 Rio Grande
8 Cheerly Man
9 Poor Old Man (Johnny Come Down to Hilo)
10 The Bully Boat (Ranzo Ray)
11 Stormalong John (Stormy Along, John)
12 Blow Boys Blow (Banks of Sacramento)
13 Carry Him to the Burying Ground (General Taylor)
14 Bulgine Run (Let the Bulgine Run)
15 Shallow Brown
16 Won’t You Go My Way?
17 Blow Boys, Come Blow Together (Blow, Me Bully Boys, Blow)
18 Tommy’s Gone (Tommy’s Gone Away)