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.
September 3, 1884 marks the sinking of the John Bigler, an otherwise unremarkable schooner out of Detroit (or possibly Chicago) memorialized in song. The slow-moving timber drogher was sailed, and sometimes pulled, through the Great Lakes canals, averaging some 4 miles an hour. The ship was lost with $3,500 worth of stone in the middle of Lake Superior. A clipping from the Toronto Telegram, 3 Oct 1942, provides more detail about the ship, the times, and the song.
Oh the Lord, made the bees,
An' the bees did make the honey,
But the Divil sent the woman foe to rob us of our money.
An around Cape Horn we'll go!
An when me money's all spent ol' gal,
We'll round Cape Horn for more ol' gal ol'gal!
You're the one I do adore.
An all I'm living in hope to see,
Is ol' Swansea Town once more!
Now we're outward bound around Cape Horn
to 'Frisco an' around
I'll send you letters when we get there,
An' you'll know I'm homeward bound ol' gal ol' gal!
Now when we're homeward bound, my dear
I'll bring you silks galore,
I'll bring you jewels an' rings an' things,
An ye won't wear the weeds no more, ol' gal ol' gal.
Outside of the Golden Gate,
I'll write my last letter to you, me dear
Then ye won't have so long to wait, old gal, old gal!
For to haul me in from sea, old gal, old gal!An then when we're rounded old Cape Horn,
Climbin' the hill for home
Passed teh Western Islands into the Bay
We'll have no further for to roam, old gal, old gal!
I'll pray that you'll be there,
To wait, me dear, on Swansea pier
My lovely presents for to share, old gal, old gal!
We'll see the lights so clear,
I know that's Megan down on the pier
In her dimity apron dear, old gal, old gal!
If I had the wings of a gull, my boys,
I would spread 'em and fly home.
I'd leave old Greenland's icy grounds
For of right whales there is none.
And the weather's rough and the winds do blow
And there's little comfort her.
I'd sooner be snug in a Deptford pub,
A-drinkin' of strong beer.
Oh, a man must be mad or want money bad
To venture catchin' whales.
For we may be drowned when the fish turns around
Or our head be smashed by his tail.
Though the work seems grand to the young green hand,
And his heart is high when he goes,
In a very short burst he'd as soon hear a curse
As the cry of: “There she blows!”
“All hands on deck now, for God's sake,
Move briskly if you can.”
And he stumbles on deck, so dizzy and sick;
For his life he don't give a damn.
And high overhead the great flukes spread,
And the mate gives the whale the iron,
And soon the blood in a purple flood
From the spout-hole comes a-flying!
Well, these trials we bear for night four year,
Till the flying jib points for home.
We're supposed for our toil to get a bonus of the oil,
And an equal share of the bone.
But we go to the agent to settle for the trip,
And we've find we've cause to repent.
For we've slaved away four years of our life
And earned about three pound ten.
Come all ye fisher lassies, aye, come awa’ wi’ me
frae Cairnburgh and Cumhrie and frae Inveralochy
frae Buckie and frae Aberdeen and a’ the country roond
we’re awa’ tae gut the herring, we’re awa’ tae Yarmouth toon
Ye’ll leave in the morning wi’ a suitcase in yer hand
be early at the station or ye’ll surely hae tae stand
take plenty tae eat and a kettle for yer tea
or ye’ll like tae die a hunger on the way tae Yarmouth toon
Noo, the journey it’s a langin’, it takes a day or twa
but when ye reach yer lodgings it’s soon tae sleep ye’ll fa’
but ye rise at five, with the sleep still in yer e’e
ye’re awa’ tae find the herring sheds alang the Yarmouth quay
frae early in the morning, tae late intae the naecht,
yer hands are guttin’ herring and they’re looking awful saecht
and ye cry like a wheel when ye put them in the bree
and ye wish ye were a thoosand miles awa’ frae Yarmouth quay
Noo, there’s coopers there and kervers there, buyers, canny chields
lassies at the picklin’ and there’s others at the creels
ye wish the fish had been all left in the sea
by the time ye finish guttin’ herring at the Yarmouth quay
I’ve gutted fish in Lerwick, in Stornoway and Shields
I’ve worked alang the Humber ‘midst the barrels and the creels
Whitby, Grimsby, I’ve worked the country roond
but the place tae find the herring is the quay at Yarmouth toon.
Now, if ye want a merchant ship to sail the seas at large;
Ye'll not have any trouble if ye have a good discharge,
Signed by the Board o' Trade an' ev'rything exact,
For there's nothing done on a Limejuice ship Contrary to the Act.
So haul, boys, yer weather main brace, An ease away yer lee,
Hoist jibs an' tops'ls, lads, an' let the ship go free,
Hurrah, boys, hurrah! We'll sing this Jubilee,
Damn an' beggar the Navy, boys, a merchant ships for me!
Now, when ye join a merchant ship ye'll hear yer Articles read,
They'll tell ye of yer beef an' pork, yer butter an' yer bread,
Yer sugar, tea, an' coffee, boys, yer peas an' beans exact,
Yer limejuice an' vinegar, boys, according to the Act.
No watch an' watch the first day out, according to the Act,
Ten days out we all lay aft to get our limejuice whack,
Fetch out the handy-billy, boys, an' clap it on the tack,
For we're gonna set that mains'l, oh, accordin' to the Act.
It's up the deck, me bully boys, wid many a curse we go,
Awaitin' to hear eight bells struck that we may go below,
The watch is called, eight bells is struck, an' the log is hove exact.
Relieve the wheel an' go below, according to the Act.