This tune is often listed among the most somber of sea songs. It has been covered far more times than can be listed here. Cyril Tawney's website, which can be accessed through the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine,
This was the last song I wrote before I left the Royal Navy in 1959. ‘The Grey Funnel Line’ is the sailors' nickname for the Royal Navy—just as if it were another mercantile line. It's a straightforward song about a sailor leaving home and the loved one. He's extremely fed up with the Senior Service and he'd rather be outside, but he has to go away yet again. On occasions like this I think the close of the first day out, as the sun is setting, is the time when we're most vulnerable to nostalgia. There's a shanty with the refrain ‘Rock and roll me over for one more day’, and this gave me the idea for my own refrain ‘It's one more day on The Grey Funnel Line’.
The words of verse two had actually been written as far back as 1953. I was on the aircraft carrier Indefatigable and I'd bought a book of American folk songs collected by the Lomaxes. I particularly liked a short Negro lament called simply Dink's Song, after the woman who sang it. Her words began ‘If I had wings like Norah's dove, I'd fly up the river to the man I love, fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well’. I started to sing it on the Indefat. but I adapted it to ‘If I had wings like Noah's dove, I'd fly up harbour to the girl I love, fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well’. I also wrote a verse of my own ‘The finest ship that sailed the sea is still a prison for the likes of me’. You have to remember that though I was only 22 I'd already been in the Navy for seven years and was bound for a further seven. ‘The likes of me’ referred to a young man who had discovered too late that he had other gifts, which were of little use in Her Majesty's Fleet. Anyway, when I came to write The Grey Funnel Line six years later I found I was able to join these two couplets together to make a four-line verse.
The next verse, three, has perhaps an even more interesting history. It was a long time before I began writing down the words of my songs; my theory was that if they weren't memorable enough to stay in my own head, then they weren't likely to stay in other people's. It was a foolish notion and, as it turned out, a risky one. I'll never know whether I've ever lost any worthwhile verses that way, but I nearly lost this one. Luckily for me, in 1960 I formed what turned out to be a lifelong friendship with a fellow folk pioneer, Lou Killen from Gateshead, and around the end of that year I went up to spend New Year with him and to do a sort of booking at the Newcastle Folk Club. Lou had a tape recorder at home and I sang him all the songs I'd written so far. In time, we both became established folk professionals touring the length and breadth of Britain. In 1962 I started a folk club in Plymouth and Lou became a frequent guest. On one occasion in 1964 he was booked just before Christmas and we adjourned to a member's house for an informal party. My host asked me if I'd sing his favourite, The Grey Funnel Line, but I declined because I'd heard from other people that Lou had been singing it around the clubs and, out of curiosity, I wanted to hear it. When he sang it there was this rather attractive verse comparing the lover's heart with a floating spar that had been washed ashore. Thinking I was hearing it for the first time, I congratulated Lou on the extra verse he'd written, especially as he'd never shown any talent in that direction before. He smiled across at me and said 'I didn't write that, you did'. It was lucky he'd taped the song five years earlier. I then had to learn the damned verse from him and add it to my own performance.
To go back to that New Year recording in 1960, another interesting thing was that when I'd finished singing The Grey Funnel Line for Lou he remarked that in a way the tune had come full circle. I asked him to explain and he reminded me that it was reminiscent of the tune of the cowboy song Bury Me Not On The Lone Prairie which, in turn, was a reworking of the sailor's song The Ocean Burial—Bury me not in the deep, deep sea'. So in The Grey Funnel Line we have a related tune being used once again for a sailor's song.
A ‘walkashore’, by the way, is a means whereby it's possible to pass from ship to shore and back again without the need of a boat, even though the ship isn't alongside. It's usually a series of pontoons, and it's generally only used if the ship in question is at a fairly permanent berth. The only walkashore I ever remember using was from the Submarine Depot Ship Forth in Malta. Modern Anglo-Saxon compounds fascinate me, so I couldn't resist getting the word into a song.
Grey Funnel Line has been used in [at least] two feature films - the Silly Sisters' recording in the opening sequence of the Hugh Grant film "Sirens", and actor Stephen Rea sings it in "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea". Canadian folklorist and film maker Seana Kozar is working on an animated film (Home Was the Sailor) which will feature the song.