Songs of Sea Labour, by Frank Bullen


When my friend Arnold first suggested this book to me, the first thought which (I think quite naturally) occurred to me was that the thing having been done several times before, it would be superfluous, if not impertinent to put yet another version before the public. But then my friend pointed out what I had only casually noticed before and had attached little importance to, viz., that without exception all these previous versions were 'composed" and "arranged;" from indistinct memories of the original melodies by the musicians whose names were attached to them.

Now this I am told is in direct contravention of the present movement for preserving original natural music, such as all genuine sea-chanties are. For such a book to have any real value its melodies must be faithfully taken down from the lips of one accustomed to sing them, one with a good memory, a good ear, but no academic musical training whatever. For a musician to undertake such a task, was for him to sink all his prejudices, resolutely put aside all his musical conventions and become, as far as the melodies were considered, a mere recorder of what was sung to him.

Now I humbly hope that it is not saying anything derogatory to the compilers, both literary and musical, of the collections of Sea Chanties already issued, to point out that in no sense do their books satisfy these prime requirements. In the first place, the literary compilers have not had the personal experience necessary. That is to say, their lot at sea has been cast in such pleasant places and in such services as effectually prevented them from gaining such experience. But I, unwillingly enough, had to spend over a decade of my sea life in various sailing ships' forecastles, engaged in trades where Chanties were not only much used on board, but where many new ones were acquired in the harbours; I allude to the West Indies and the Southern States of America.

Being possessed of a strong and melodious voice and a tenacious memory, Chanty singing early became a passion with me, and this resulted in my being invariably made Chantyman of each new vessel I sailed in, a function I performed until I finally reached the quarter-deck, when of course it ceased.  Possibly this may sound egotistical, in fact I am pretty sure it does, but really it is not so intended, it is merely stating certain facts, none of which invests me with: any merit whatever.  For instance it is nothing to my credit or otherwise that I was before the mast in sailing ships from 1869 to 1880, or that I was never apprenticed and consequently was a member of many different ships' companies and sailed in many varying trades in that time. But it does go to show that I had the opportunity of learning the old Sea Chanties in places and under the best auspices, both of which are no longer available.

Now it is necessary to say something about the words of Chanties.  The stubborn fact is that they had no set words beyond a starting verse or two and the fixed phrases of the chorus, which were very often not words at all.  For all Chanties were impromptu as far as the words were concerned.  Many a Chantyman was prized in spite of his poor voice because of his improvisations.  Poor doggerel they were mostly and often very lewd and filthy, but they gave the knowing and appreciative shipmates, who roared the refrain, much opportunity for laughter.

Because of this I maintain that a Chanty which is "composed" to-day by a literary man is an anomaly.  It may be poetical as well as seamanlike but it has no more relation to the old time Chanty, than the composed and arranged music has to the

                     "Native wood-notes wild"

of the sailor, generally be it said, the negro sailor and boatman. For this reason no words beyond an introductory strophe or so and the choruses will be found in this book. Another omission is that of Sea Songs. They are not Chanties, nor have they ever been used as such. Therefore they are out of place in a collection of Chanties and I had intended to exclude them utterly, but on the earnest representation of my collaborator have consented to include two, the stately "Spanish Ladies" and "Lowlands Low."

Personally I anticipate little profit or credit from the publication of this book.  It is true that I have often been asked by literary friends why I did not do some such thing, but I have always refused.  Nor should I have yielded now but for a period of enforced leisure before the end and the knowledge that in Mr. Arnold I have found a musician without prejudices, willing to do what he has done to rescue these old songs from oblivion.

To conclude, I do not claim that I have here recorded all the Chanties there are—but these are all I know and have sung many times.  And although many a furtive smile will creep over old sailors' faces, when they hear these Chanties and remember the associated words that went with them, those words are not down here.

Bournemouth, 1913.


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