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Roy Palmer of EDS

reviews Short Sharp Shanties Vol. 1 by John Short

John Short of Watchet in Somerset, who spent over fifty years at sea, died in 1933 at the age of 92. In a series of session between April and September 1914, Cecil Sharp took down over fifty shanties from him, noting: ‘Mr Short is an old salt who served on a sailing ship – more latterly half steam & half sail – all over the world, India China S. America etc. He was in N. America at the time of the Civil War.’ According to Maud Karpeles, Sharp was impressed by ‘John Short’s rich, resonant and powerful voice which is “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”’.

A number of the ‘Short Sharp’ shanties were among the Novello songbooks used in schools between the 1920s and the 1950s or 60s but they have featured little in the performances of subsequent revival singers. Until now, that is, with the first of three CDs which set out systematically to explore John Short’s repertoire. Because he was born in 1830, this includes unusual and early versions, including rarities such as ‘Tommy’s Gone’ and ‘Won’t You Go My Way?’

Jim Mageean, Jeff Warner, Keith Kendrick, Jackie Oates, Roger Watson, Sam Lee, Brian Willoughby, Tom Brown and Barbara Brown are involved here, the voices backed at times by their own concertina, fiddle, banjo, melodeon and Doug Bailey’s guitar. They make the point that ‘We would not attempt “authentic” renditions – we were in a recording studio, not working a ship.’ As a result, the effect is one of emotion recollected in tranquillity from ‘a long time ago’, and it is both effective and at times moving. Nevertheless, the listener is well aware that this is a collection of work songs. Whose steps around the capstan would fail to be galvanised by the brisk rhythms of Keith Kendrick’s ‘Poor Old Man’ or the sinuous melismata of Sam Lee’s ‘Carry Him to the Burying Ground’? The whole CD, sometimes reflective, like Jackie Oates’s ‘Tommy’s Gone’, with its instrumental breaks, sometimes more wild, like Barbara Brown’s ‘Bulgine Run’, is a fine piece of work which makes one look forward to its companion volumes.