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Mick Tems of Folk Wales

reviews Short Sharp Shanties Vol. 2 by John Short

As a researcher/performer into the Barry and Cardiff sailors’ 50 shanties and sea songs, it seems to me as thought the Bristol Channel was well stocked with rumbustious and exciting seafaring material – and some of it of a rare quality, too. In 1926, American collector James Madison Carpenter recorded the South Wales sailors, and in 1914 John Short of the Severnside harbour community of Watchet, Somerset, gave the folk-song collector Cecil Sharp nearly 60 shanties, several in early rare versions. The admirable WildGoose label has just released Volume 2 of John’s work, recorded from a range of expert folk singers; having listened to it, I am so looking forward to Volume 3.

Short, also known as Yankee Jack, spent 50 years in sailing boats and deep-water ships, sailing all around the world as a shantyman. He was born in 1830, went to sea with his father when he was nine, went deep sea at 18 and retired from the deep water trade in his mid-thirties. He died at the age of 94 in 1933. Sharp said of him: “He has the folk-singer’s tenacious memory and… very great musical ability… It would be difficult, I imagine, to find a more experienced exponent in 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.”

In the same way as Carpenter recorded the South Wales sailors by cutting off their delivery, Short only sang a verse or two of his 6- shanties for Sharp; the singers say they have carefully reshaped the stanzas. There are striking similarities between the shanties on both sides of the Channel, too – William Fender from Barry sang the shanty Ilo Man for Carpenter, but Short sang an American shanty called Huckleberry Hunting with exactly the same tune and the same “boys and the girls” words. Once distinction of Short’s version is his use of an augmented fourth, known as “the Devil’s Interval” in classical circles, and deep-voiced revival singer Barbara Brown makes a good job of that.

Barbara also does the opening shanty, Rowler Bowler, to perfection, and she paves the way for Whisky is My Johnny (Jim Mageean), So Early In The Morning (Jeff Warner), Lucy Long (Tom Brown) and a dainty fiddle-plucked Boney Was A Warrior, executed beautifully by Jackie Oates – the same Jackie who recorded the South Wales shanty, Tommy’s Gone Away, which I recorded in 1984. Roger Watson, recorded before his stroke, sings Roll And Go, Sam Lee interprets Tom’s Gone To Ilo and Keith Kendrick and Barbara Brown harmonise a lovely Shanadore, which became known as Shenandoah. Tom also does a bawdy sailors’ parody of the American Civil War anthem, I Wish I Was In Dixie, called I Wish I Was With Nancy, the bass concertina giving it the artful oomph.

We have been waiting 98 years to hear such a caring, profession task as WildGoose have accomplished in their Short Project – more power to their elbows.