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David Kidman of Folk Roundabout

reviews Short Sharp Shanties Vol. 1 by John Short

This attractively punningly-titled disc is the first of a projected series of three CDs which will record the repertoires of John Short (aka Yankee Jack) of Watchet, Somerset, who in 1914 gave Cecil Sharp nearly 60 shanties (many no doubt having been collected during his tenure as a shantyman). WildGoose’s choice of artists for this repertoire is highly appropriate – all making the most of their individual lead roles (shared out at generally two apiece) are Jim Mageean, Keith Kendrick, Roger Watson, Tom & Barbara Brown, Jeff Warner, Jackie Oates and Sam Lee, with contributions from Brian Willoughby (guitar) and producer Doug Bailey and chorus vocals and fine harmonies from all the singers involved. Fittingly, the whole enterprise is dedicated to the memory of Johnny Collins. These performances are carried out in an authentic spirit – not authentic in the literal “on-board-ship” sense, but instead in the adoption of guiding principles authentic to Short’s practices, first in including the incorporation of all Short’s texts and tunes (although sometimes needing to expand on the original, fragmentary sources) and second in enjoying the element of improvisation Short himself might have employed. A judicious degree of instrumentation adds variety to the totality of the project, without intruding on the important fact that by nature these shanties were after all work songs. What all this means is that these renditions are invariably refreshingly different from the standard lusty shanty-crew outings we’re accustomed to hearing – not just in textual matters but in character too. Roger Watson’s treatment of Rio Grande, for instance, is supremely wistful, while Jackie Oates’ take on the pumping shanty Fire Down Below is both unexpected and delightful (and her tender Tommy’s Gone Away variant, which closes the disc, is truly a thing of beauty), and Sam’s doleful moaning version of General Taylor takes its cues from the extraordinarily wilful melodic lines scrupulously notated by Sharp. There’s no lack of lustiness in these renditions, however: just sample Tom’s accounts of Ranzo Ray (The Bully Boat) and Hanging Johnny, and Barbara Brown’s Cheerly Man and Let The Bulgine Run in particular. Jim turns in a definitive account of the not-often-heard Stormy Along, John and also offers us the intriguing multi-metred Shallow Brown, while Tom’s Camptown-style rendition of Blow, Boys, Blow (Banks of Sacramento) comes complete with fiddle and banjo. My only quibble is that for some inexplicable reason a small number of the tracks receive a fadeout ending. This stimulating release should have a wide appeal outwith shanty specialists; I look forward to volumes two and three.