10 November 2011

#22 Lowlands Low

This is actually the first dedicated halyard chanty to come along in Stan Hugill's Shanties from the Seven Seas. It reminds me of yesterday's post on "Lowlands [away]" . No, not because they share the word "lowlands"—though that is surely what caused Hugill to group them one after the other. I am thinking of the way a few chosen words in a song's lyrics can influence the audience's ideas about the song, where it comes from, and who sings it.

In his presentation of "Lowlands Away," John Masefield introduced the phrase "bonny hair"—or so I believe. I believe this was part of his bias in thinking the song was spawned from the "Lowlands of Scotland" ballad, which, when fleshing out the song with new verses, caused him to use language that evoked Scottish (or Northern English) culture. Once he has done that—or even if he did not contrive it, and it truly was the incidental addition of a sailor—the die is cast. The audience will hear "bonny" and think, "Yup, Scotland." They would think much differently about that song had they been presented with the field-collected lyrics, many of which were along the lines of, "A dollar a day is a nigger's pay"!

The present chanty, "Lowlands Low", was attested by just two collectors. Cecil Sharp got it from Richard Perkins, who evidently gave just one verse:

Lowlands, Lowlands, Lowlands, lowlands, low.
Our Captain is a bully man;
Lowlands, Lowlands, lowlands, low.
He gave us bread as hard as brass;
Lowlands, Lowlands, lowlands, low.

Hugill was the other collector, who got it from "Tobago Smith," an Afro-Caribbean sailor whose lyrics evidently included the line,

There’s a nigger howlin’ at the main topmast...

The first recording of the song, following Hugill's 1961 publication, was by revival performer Ian Campbell in 1964 (on the Topic Records LP, Farewell Nancy). It clearly derives from Hugill’s text, in which the latter stated it was a West Indian song. However, A.L. Lloyd’s liner notes to Campbell's album track flatly claim its tune “derives from the well-known Miller of Dee” of Bickerstaffe’s 1762 light opera Love in a Village. Even if the tune does go back to that source, the effect of the statement (i.e. without other details) is emphasizing an assumed, default position that chanties are of English origin, and implying that the “Tobago Negro” from whom Hugill heard it is merely a transmitter of that base tradition.

Notably, in Campbell's and many subsequent versions, the now-offensive word “nigger” has been replaced by “laddie.” The idea may have been to substitute an innocuous word, which is indeed the prerogative of contemporary performers. However, the word “laddie”, inadvertent as this may be, erases the Black voice of the chantyman. It also replaces it with a positively British tone.

Naturally, I too would not like to sing "n**ger"; I sing "sailor"—a more neutral word. Maybe Campbell chose "laddie" quite incidentally, and from his vantage it was similarly neutral. But I think we hear it as stamping the chanty as something British and not West Indian.

This, I think, is one of the big quandaries for contemporary performers of chanties—or if it isn't, it should be! In the presentation of history, it is clear we should keep the authentic wording. In today's performance, on the other hand, it is clear that "n**ger" is unacceptable. Yet as we repeatedly perform this music in edited form, we can't help but erase the verbal clues that reflect cultural ownership. It was a Black man who sang the word, not bigoted Whites.

Here's my recording of the chanty. From my mustache one can tell it was among the first I recorded! Because chanties like this were in a call and response form—and I had no responders—I was experimenting with different ways (e.g. before I started over-dubbing) to indicate which part was solo and which was chorus. So I did a funny thing with the timing, putting deliberate pauses in between sections.

The line about "monkey's rigged in sojer's clothes" is a floating lyric from minstrelsy (I can't find a reference to where I've seen it; you'll have to trust me). The line about "Belam's ass" is a clever bowdlerization by Hugill for "Lot's wife's ass."

Ranzo :{

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