Frank Bullen, 19th century chantyman

Novelist and essayist Frank Bullen was born in London in 1857. When he was nine years old his formal schooling ended, and he was employed as an errand boy for a time. Despite his lack of formal education he enjoyed reading and had a curious mind and so managed to educate himself on his own throughout his life. In 1869 he went to sea and travelled to "all parts of the world" in various capacities on board ship. In 1883 he became a clerk in the Meteorological Office until 1889. He wrote several books, the best known of which was published in 1906, The Cruise of the "Cachelot." His other books include Idylls of the Sea (1899), Sea Wrack (1903), The Call of the Deep (1907) and A Compleat Sea Cook (1912). He died in Madeira in 1915.

As a fan of maritime music, of greater interest to me was Mr. Bullen's book, Songs of Sea Labour, which was published in 1914.  In the introduction he outlines his qualifications for writing the book:

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, where 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 whatsoever.  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 the right places and under the best auspices, both of which are no longer available.

He goes on to explain that in his opinion, the ability to cleverly improvise verses was more important in being a good chantyman than having a good singing voice.  Therefore, his book gives only the first verse and the chorus, leaving the creation of additional verses to the reader.  The latter, he suggests, would be a fine entertainment even for non-sailors:

It is a wild thought of mine I know, but I have imagined the improvising of words to these Chanties becoming a favorite country house Drawing Room diversion.  I think that for the encouragement of latent poetic talent, allied to versatility, few amusements offer a wider or more hopeful field than this.  But I may be wrong.  Perhaps it will be found too stimulating a mental occupation for the majority of country house visitors.  I do not know.  Judging from specimens of their conversation given in novels written by those within the pale and therefore privileged to take part in these causeries, mental agility must be of a very high order, and the feeble chatter limited to a dreary repetition of "Doncherknow," "I meantosay" and "What!" to be confined to a shallow-brained minority.

Without further ado, then, here is Mr. Bullen's book for your amusement:

Introduction (text)

Songs of Sea Labour (Warning, large pdf.)

The Cruise of the "Cachelot" can be found through Project Gutenberg:

The Cruise of the Cachalot Round the World After Sperm Whales by Frank T. Bullen

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Copyright 2009 K. Whisler