Jim Lawson of Tykes News
reviews Short Sharp Shanties Vol. 1 by John ShortIn the last issue of Tykes’ we flagged up the near completion of Tom and Barbara Brown’s project to bring the entire shanty repertoire of John Short of Watchet, as collected by Cecil Sharp in 1914, to the public. This is the first of a series of three CDs, with the second and third to be release later this year.
This is, I have to say, an outstanding piece of work. There is a danger that projects like this can end up with a rather dry academic feel, or are so esoteric that they are only of interest to the specialist as source material. This CD falls into neither of these traps. The ethos of this project was not to attempt ‘authentic’ rendering but to allow for variation in treatment, sometimes letting the song’s roots show, sometimes just enjoying the improvisation Short himself might have employed, sometimes letting the instruments add variety to the totality of the project – but never obscuring the songs from being understandable, at base, as working shanties. The lead singer was allowed to create a rendition that they felt comfortable with, with choruses provided by other of the project artists. The result is that the singers and musicians have created an extraordinarily varied collection of tracks.
I think there is a tendency in the folk world to be a little dismissive of sea shanties, consigning them to a genre-ghetto, regarded as a rather unsophisticated subculture. I hope that no such prejudice will prevent anyone from enjoying the massive variety of arrangement and delivery on this CD. The list of artists alone – Tom and Barbara Brown, Keith Kendrick, Sam Lee, Jim Mageean, Jackie Oates, Jeff Warner, Roger Watson and Brian Willoughby – will give you some idea of how extensive is the talent which has been applied to what are an already very interesting selection of songs. Interesting, because we know many of them in modern polished versions, and here we see the roots from which those versions grew. Sometimes very deep roots indeed.
So I invite you to enjoy a mixture of the old and new – Jackie Oates singing ‘Fire Down Below’, Tome Brown singing ‘The Bully Boat’ or Sam Lee singing ‘Mr Tapscott’, and a multiplicity of other wonderful songs and performances – eighteen in all. There are those who might consider me biased in my enthusiasm for sea songs, but I have to say that I can’t imagine many of you who would not be delighted with this CD for its pure entertainment value, if nothing else.