Sunday, August 04, 2013

Two More Sea Shanty Records

The Keelers Tyne & Tyde (2013)
Johnny Collins, Dave Webber & Pete Watkinson Songs of the Sea: a Collection of Sea Shanties (1998)

Avast there mateys, the bosun has ye well shanghaied for more shanty action.

I have previously mentioned going to see the Keelers supporting the Unthanks playing out in Bray. There my beloved bought a copy of their record Tyne & Tyde. The line-up is the same as that of Farewell to the Master but the instrumentation is a bit different - as in there is any. This time some of the songs feature concertina, whistle and tambourine, but it is mostly still just vocal.

The stand-out tracks on this are probably the same ones I mention in the live concert review. 'Old Billy Blue' (an original composition by the Keelers' Peter Wood) tells the story of Admiral William Cornwallis, who commanded the British fleet blockading Brest during the Napoleon Wars. He was so good at doing this that he acquired two nicknames - OId Billy Blue and Billy Go Tight. The song tells of how he could never be got away from his station and of how other admirals would always link up with them if they had mislaid a French high-seas fleet. It has this great chorus:

He's Old Billy Blue and he's Billy Go Tight.
He's always on station by day and by night.
What do admirals do when bitterly pressed?
They fall back on Cornwallis at Brest.

I find it hard not to join in with this one.

The other corker is a tune by one Mike O'Connor called 'Carrying Nelson Home', in which Nelson is being carried home after Trafalgar (he was killed there by a French sniper; I have always wondered whether the sniper survived the battle). The song imagines Nelson in his bucket of rum still giving orders to the sailors on his last voyage home, and is very poignant, for all that Nelson is not my national hero.

The other tunes are not entirely nautical, including ones about building railways (the trad. arr. tune 'New Railroad'), emigration and nostalgia ('Black and White') and that universal theme, lusting after the daughters of pub landlords ('The Landlord's Daughter', not the tune from The Wicker Man). George Unthanks' 'Tar Barrel in Dale' also makes its way onto record, so if you want to be extra ready for joining-in at an Unthanks concert then buy this album.

I should also menton the production on Tyne & Tide. Shanty records generally sound like they had no production at all on them and they are not obviously the worse for it. This one, though, was produced by Adrian McNally (Rachel Unthank's husband and the Unthanks' keyboardist). The production is great - it was recorded in a church and makes great use of the place's acoustics to give us a most atmospheric sound. And at no point does Mr McNally go down the bad producer's road of deciding to add in a bit of piano or Hammond organ to songs that are best left as unadorned as possible. But it still sounds produced, and produced well, thanks to the adroit sound engineering and sue of the sound qualities of the recording venue.

Songs of the Sea (by Johnny Collins, Dave Webber and Pete Watkinson) is a record I have had for ages, but my sudden burst of shanty interest caused me to dig it out and add it to iTunes. It is a somewhat un-curated collection, barely naming the artists involved and providing little or no supporting information. I had rather assumed that it was a collection of tunes sung by fairly anonymous singers. But not so. While using Google to spell-check the name of Jim Mageean from the Keelers, I found a YouTube recording of a young Mageean singing with Johnny Collins of this record in a context suggesting that Collins is someone known for knowing his shanties (and if Mageean is deferring to him then this really must be the case).

The record features more hot shanty action, mostly or entirely without instrumentation. 'Blood Red Roses' makes its obligatory appearance, but what is most striking to me now is the closer - the 'Farewell Shanty', a tune about sailors getting ready to sail away, and a tune that I remember from the last session at the Unthanks singing weekend.

Some links:

The Keelers and the Unthanks live in Bray

Tyne and Tide image source

Wikipedia page for the late Johnny Collins

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