The songs of the sea have a long legacy of scholarship, musicianship, and public performance. From the work songs of deep-water sailors and fishermen, to the ballads taken into pubs and forecastles, these songs have been used to coordinate effort, remember shore life, and sometimes just pass the time.
The songs themselves have been passed from ship to ship, printed in newspapers and books, shared at festivals, learned from video games, and remixed on social media. Hundreds of sea music-specific albums have been recorded, and maritime music comprises a distinct genre.
Howard Blackburn is a Gloucester, Massachusetts legend. He left life as a successful tavern-keeper to row across the Atlantic in a single-person dory called the Great Republic. On July 18, 1901, the 25-foot sloop made port in Lisbon, Portgul, after just 39 days at sea. It was Blackburn's second solo trans-Atlantic voyage, and his time set a record that wouldhold for many years.
What makes Blackburn's voyage all-the-more remarkable is that he had lost nearly all of his fingers and toes to frostbite in 1883. While fishing for halibut, he and his crewmate were separated from their ship. While rowing and bailing, his crewmate lost hope and succumbed to the winter storm, but Blackburn, noting the inevitable, froze his hands to the oars and rowed for five days. He was nursed back to health but the results of the journey have been documented in gruesome detail. Nevertheless, shore life left Blackburn with a yearning for adventure, and strenuous solo voyages were his answer. His name lives on in Gloucester, where his tavern building still stands, and in the ballad The Saga of Howard Blackburn.
Today marks the Battle of Boston Harbor, fought during the War of 1812. The USS Chesapeake was captured by the Royal Navy frigate HMS Shannon on June 1, 1813. Captain of the Shannon
Philip Broke wrote to challenge the American frigate to leave the
harbor for ship-to-ship combat: "As the Chesapeake appears now ready
for sea, I request you will do me the favour to meet the Shannon with
her, ship to ship, to try the fortune of our respective flags... Favour
me with a speedy reply. We are short of provisions and water, and cannot
Captain Lawrence of the Chesapeake never received the challenge but instead set out to meet the British frigate on the first day of favorable weather. The ships were evenly matched but Lawrence's crew proved ill-prepared. His ship was quickly disabled and boarded, and 71 men died in the ten minutes of ensuing arm-to-arm combat. The Chesapeake was taken as a prize in what became the first major naval victory for the British in the War of 1812. The British memorialized the event in The Shannon and the Chesapeake which parodies the American Revolutionary success sung in The Constitution and Guerrière.
The boatmen shout, 'tis time to part,
No longer can we stay;
'Twas then Mimuna taught my heart
How much a glance can say,
'Twas then Mimuna taught my heart
How much a glance can say.
With trembling steps to me she came,
Farewell, she would have cried;
But ere her lips the words could frame,
In half-formed sounds it died.
Through tear-dimm'd eyes beamed looks of love,
Her arms she round me flung;
As clings the breeze on sighing grove
Upon my breast she hung.
My willing arms embraced the maid,
My heart with rapture beat,
While she but wept the more and said,
"Would we had never met!"
Was you ever on the Brumalow
Where the Yankee boys are all the go?
Ch: To my way-ay-ha, ha...
My Johnny, boys, ha ha...
Why don't you try
for to wring Miss Lucy Long?
O! as I walked out one morning fair,
To view the views and take the air.
'Twas there I met Miss Lucy fair,
'Twas there we met I do declare.
I thought I heard, the Old Man say.
Ch: Leave her, Johnny, leave her.
You can go ashore and draw your pay,
Ch: It's time for us to leave her.
You may make her fast and pack your gear,
And leave her moored to the West Street Pier.
The winds were foul, the work was hard,
From Liverpool docks to the Brooklyn yard.
She would not steer nor ware nor stay,
She shipped green water night and day.
She shipped it green and made us curse,
The mate's a devil and the old man's worse.
The winds were foul, the ship was slow,
The grub was bad, the wages low.
The winds were foul, the trip was long,
But before we go we'll sing this song.
We'll sing, oh, may we never be
On a hungry bitch the like of she.