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Raymond Greenoaken of Stirrings

reviews Short Sharp Shanties Vol. 1 by John Short

It’s always been a source of embarrassment that the English Folk Song Revival was founded by someone called Cecil. No wonder non-folkies think we’re a bunch of hullo-clouds-hullo-sky milksops. If only he’d been called Steve. Or Bruce. Rocky, even. But such is life.

Nomenclature aside, you have to give Cecil Sharp his due. His song collecting activities in the early years of last century laid the foundations of the traditional repertoire we hold so dear. And by a pretty coincidence, here are two CDs that celebrate his mighty labours.

Short Sharp Shanties (terrible title: lose five points and miss a turn) focuses on the unique body of sea shanties Sharp collected in 1914 from a 70-year-old shantyman from Watchet in Somerset called John Short, known to his shipmates as Yankee Jack. Short went to sea at the age of nine, at the time the sea shantey [sic] itself was in its infancy. He was practically the shantey in human form. Sharp took nearly sixty of these songs from him, several in very early and rare versions, and few of them have found their way into the ditty bags of Revival singers, who have tended to draw largely on the Hugill collection for their maritime morceaux.

Maybe that will change with the arrival of this CD and its two companion volumes, due for release later in the year. Together they represent Short’s entire shantey repertoire, and as such they’re an important and welcome resource. Well done, WildGoose—you can have those five points back.

A cast of ten singers and musicians has been assembled for the purpose, and between them they bring a fair bit of variety to the performances. Keith Kendrick, Jim McGeean [sic], Roger Watson and Tom Brown can bawl ‘em out to the manner born, but Jeff Warner brings a smoother, more urbane quality and Sam Lee an engaging “I’m new here” callowness. Perhaps surprisingly, the crew includes two female singers. Jackie Oates’ wispy, girlish tones add a pleasing texture to the choruses and draw the secret tenderness out of Tommy’s Gone; and Barbara Brown has a shantey-voice that would strip the paint from the bulwarks. You also get various combinations of instruments—concertinas, melodeons, fiddles, guitar, banjo—as well as the more conventional voice-and-chorus arrangements.

Some of Short’s versions were fragmentary, and these have been filled out from parallel sources; so everything here is satisfyingly singable. As a listening experience, too, Short Sharp Shanties holds the attention throughout. It’s as bracing as a force 6 out of Finisterre, and the strange, yearning quality of some of these shanties is expertly captured too. Vols 2 and 3: bring ‘em on...