29 November 2011

#34-39 Rio Grande (series)

"Rio Grande," in my mind, occupies a sort of "neutral" space. This is subjective, I admit. Yet what I mean is that it doesn't suggest (again, to me) any particular national or ethnic connections beyond just being a common song of the varied lot of sailors. Maybe it's because it doesn't seem to have any land connections at all; it is a chanty, exclusively. The early chanties, in my experience, have a strong feeling of being connected to an African-American tradition or repertoire. And a lot of the late period chanties are borrowed land-songs, bringing with them the cultural associations of the land from which they came. That this has neither puts it in a period when chanties had become—or at least some had certainly become—"released" from the early associations (again, that I allege). They had become the shared genre. They were "generally" American, perhaps, as some 19th century writers did associate "Rio Grande" with American-ness:

If most of the forecastle melodies still current at sea be not the composition of Yankees, the words, at all events, are sufficiently tinctured by American sentiment to render my conjecture plausible. The titles of many of these working songs have a strong flavour of Boston and New York about them. 'Across the Western Ocean'; 'The Plains of Mexico'; 'Run, let the Bulljine, run !' 'Bound to the Rio Grande '; these and many more which I cannot immediately recollect betray to my mind a transatlantic inspiration. 
[From Russell, W. Clark. “The Old Naval Song.” Longman's Magazine Vol 12 (June 1888): 180-191.]

Russell, quoted here, was English. Perhaps it is my American position that is preventing me from seeing anything particularly "American," as this is sort of my "default." In any case, if it were a halyard chanty I am quite sure it would strike me as a Black style of song, and if it had, say, Irish earmarks it might stand out for me. But it really does just appear as a "plain old, right in the center of the definition" capstan chanty...the Dunhill Standard Mixture! (Incidentally, "Rio Grande" also seems to be one of the most stable or consistent chanties with respect to its tune.) Funny. So whereas chanties like the recently discussed "Stormalong" and "Santiana" seem to reek of an earlier period (1840s)...and the sweat of Black labor in the Southern U.S...."Rio Grande" evokes the White American common sailor of the 1860s, by which time chanties had become a ubiquitous shipboard "tool" and originals were being created aboard ship. Or at least in my opinion.

So while Carpenter's singer Mark Page went to sea as early as 1849, and knew this chanty, I'm inclined to suspect he may not have sung it until later in his sailing career (which ended 1879). John Short (sea service starting 1858) was another old sailor whose version is documented (in Sharp 1914). It may be notable at this point that his contains no narrative:

I think I heard the old man say:
    O you Rio,
I think I heard the old man say:
    We're bound for Rio Grand.
    And away for Rio,
    O you Rio, 
    So fare you well, my bonny young girl,
    We're bound for Rio Grand.

O Rio Grand is my native land.

It's there that I would take my stand.

She's a buxom young maid with a rolling black eye.

She came from her dwelling a long way from here.

I wish I was in Rio to-day.

Buckle [bucko] sailors you'll see there,

With long sea-boats and close cropped hair.

I've no other documents of source singers that can be reasonably argued to have possibly learned it before the 1860s. The earliest mention of it in print, then, comes from that decade:

There is an air of romance about California, the Brazils, and Mexico, that has a peculiar charm for Jack, and has made them the subject of many a favourite shanty, as Rio Grande, Valparaiso, Round the Horn, and Santa Anna...

Rio Grande is perhaps the greatest favourite of this description of songs, but all the beauty lies in the mournful air :—

To Rio Grande we're bound away, away to Rio; 

Then fare you well, my pretty young girls, 

We're bound for the Rio Grande.

[From 1868 Dallas, E. S., ed. "On Shanties." Once a Week 31 (1 Aug. 1868).]

Among the sailors who I estimate started their career in the '60s, is John Perring, recorded by Sharp in 1912:
I thought I heard our Captain say,
    Oh Rio
I thought I heard our Captain say
    “We are off to Rio Grande”
    Then away Rio…Away Rio,
    So fare you well my bonny young girl,
    We are off to Rio Grande.

So heave up your anchor and let us away.

We've a jolly good ship and a jolly good crew.
A jolly good mate and a good captain too.

So set all your sails, 'tis a favouring wind;
Say good-bye to the lass you are leaving behind.

For twelve long months we'll be away.
And then return with our twelve months' pay,

And there is Whall, whose version (published 1910) goes:

O, say, was you ever in Rio Grande?
    O, you Rio!
It’s there that the river runs down golden sand,
    For I’m bound to the Rio Grande.
    And away, you Rio! O, you Rio!
    Sing fare you well, my bonny yound girls,
    For I’m bound to the Rio Grande.

Now, you Bowery ladies, we'd have you to know,
We're bound to the Southward, O Lord, let us go!

So it's pack up your donkey and get under way,
The girls we are leaving can take our half-pay.

We'll sell our salt cod for molasses and rum,
And get back again 'fore Thanksgiving has come.

And good-bye, fare-you-well, all you ladies of town,
We've left you enough for to buy a silk gown.

Captain R.C. Adams, a more contemporary reference (On Board the Rocket, 1879), gives a version we can date more precisly to the mid-late 1860s, on the U.S. Barque Rocket. It is the first publication to give musical score with these lyrics:

I'm bound away this very day.
    Oh, you Rio!
I'm bound away this very day, 
    I'm bound for the Rio Grande.
    And away you Rio! Oh, you Rio!
    I'm bound away this very day, 
    I'm bound for the Rio Grande.

1870s versions include Robinson's (1919):

The anchor is up and we’re sailing away,
    Way you Rio
And the wind it is fair to sail out of the bay.
    for we’re bound for the Rio Grande!
            And away you Rio! Oh! you Rio!
            Then fare you well, my bonny young girl,
            for we’re bound for the Rio Grande!

And Richard Maitland's (Doerflinger 1951):

Now I was born on the Rio Grande
    Way, Rio!
I was born down on the Rio Grande,
    And I’m bound for Rio Grande!
    And away, Rio, Away, Rio
    So fare you well, my bonny young gal,
    We’re bound for Rio Grande!

Rio Grande [New York town, Boston town, etc.] is no place for me;
I’ll pack my bag and I’ll go to sea.

The anchor is weighed and the sails they are set,
The girls we are leaving we’ll never forget.

I’ll ship down at New Orleans,
She’s loaded with cotton and bound to Liverpool.

James H. Williams, African-American seaman (1909), called it "about the most inspiring vocal music...ever heard." Instead of a bonny fair made, he sang of a bonny brown maid:

In Rio Grande, I'll take my stand,
    Heave away, to Rio,
Oh, Rio Grande, a happy fair land,
    We're bound to Rio Grande.
    Heave away, to Rio;
    Heave away. oh, Rio;
    So fare you well, my bonny brown maid,
    We're bound to Rio Grande."

A glance at the above shows mostly non-narrative lyrics, though sometimes they dwell on the rough theme of the place, Rio Grande, or the theme of going away (outward bound). In Shanties from the Seven Seas, Stan Hugill's Version (D) represents this default sort of style.
The lyrics owe a bit to Whall and Maitland's versions, along with I believe to be some of Hugill's favorite personal/original verses—good ones! This was just the third chanty I recorded for this project, at which time I was picking and choosing and shuffling verses to create a personal performance version—not quite perfectly memorized! Later, as these sort of verses would become "stock" to me, it became easier to cover up memory lapses or simply ad lib. I was living on Anacapa Street in Santa Barbara; I remember singing many chanties in that kitchen! My voice seems to have been perpetually nasal in those days, partly because that is how I had learned to sing loudly, but also I think in that season I was just very congested!

Contemporary published mentions of "Rio Grande," in the 1880s, go on to include Alden's 1882 article, in which he also provides notation. He also introduces the "Fishes of the sea" theme to this chanty form. 

I'll sing you a song of the fish of the sea.
    Rolling Rio.
I'll sing you a song of the fish of the sea.
    To my Rolling Rio Grande.
    Hurrah, you Rio, Rolling Rio.
    So fare you well, my bonny young girls,
    For I'm bound to the Rio Grande.

This doesn't appear to be one of the more popular ways to sing it. But the suggestion was enough for Hugill to include this type as his Version (E). As can be seen, this performance, about a year and a half after the start of the project, features a less nasal (but no less loud) voice. And though it is a very long performance with many verses...no memory issues. As I note, I sometimes like really long chanties, just to sort of get into them. However, I don't think this sort of thing would go over well in folk music style sing-arounds.

L.A. Smith goes Alden one better, in her 1888 collection, offering a version on the "Milkmaid" narrative theme:

Were you ever in Rio Grande?
    Away you Rio.
O were you ever in Rio Grande?
    I am bound to the Rio Grande.
      Away you Rio, away you Rio.
      Fare you well, my pretty young girl,
      I am bound to the Rio Grande.

As I was going down Broadway Street,
A pretty young girl I chanced to meet,

Oh where are you going, my pretty maid?

I am going a milking, sir, she said.

What is your fortune, my pretty maid?

My face is my fortune, sir, she said.

What is your father, my pretty maid?

My father's a farmer, sir, she said.

What is your mother, my pretty maid?

Wife to my father, sir, she said.

Then I can't marry you, my pretty maid.

Nobody asked you, sir, she said.

The "Milkmaid" theme goes back to a nursery rhyme, which by the 1880s had contributed to a popular songs and bawdy parodies. It may have been due to this that, around this time, the theme was adopted by chantymen. The version of "Rio" by Patrick Tayleur, who went to sea 1885, lends some support to the idea.

    Heave away, Rio! Heave away, Rio! 

    Singin' fare you well, my bonnie young gal,
And we're bound to Rio Grande! 

"May I come with you, my pretty maid?" 

    Heave away, Rio! 

"Oh, may I come with you, oh, my pretty maid?" 

    When you're bound to Rio Grande! 

"You can please yourself, young man," she did say, 

Now, when I can come to you with open arms, 

God bless you, may I only hope for your hand, 

Now, there is one thing that I would like to say, 

I pray you tell, oh, may I have your hand? 

Now, if you'll come back, as you went away-- 

I'll marry you when I come back and we'll say, 

Hugill gave this thematic style as Version (C). I happen to like this recording, which I think represents more confidence in my chanty singing and also a very "josh" (Indian word!) filled interpretation. Would be better with other singers!—but here's the next best try.
I also made an attempt in the above to un-expurgate Hugill's text, referencing some other, bolder sources, along with imagination, of course. And, because Hugill gave the same melody for all his variants, for variety I used the melody given in Harlow's (1962) book instead.

Bradford & Fagge included "Rio Grande" in their songbook of 1904, and it was recorded following—the first audio recording—by the classical choir-style Minster Singers, for Victor Records. An ad for their disc appears here. This had the "Where are you going to my pretty maid?" opener, which became fairly popular in print versions like Masefield's (1906).

By 1925, John Goss and a quartet had recorded RR Terry's 1921 published version for HMV, the lyrics of which are here for reference. It looks like a composite of several sources:

I'll sing you a song of the fish of the sea.

    Oh Rio.

I'll sing you a song of the fish of the sea

    And we're bound for the Rio Grande.

    Then away love, away,
'Way down Rio,

    So fare ye well my pretty young gel.

    For we're bound for the Rio Grande.

Sing good-bye to Sally, and good-bye to Sue,
And you who are listening, good-bye to you.

Our ship went sailing out over the Bar
And we pointed her nose for the South-er-en Star.

Farewell and adieu to you ladies of Spain
And we're all of us coming to see you again.

I said farewell to Kitty my dear,
And she waved her white hand as we passed the South Pier.

The oak, and the ash, and the bonny birk tree

They're all growing green in the North Countrie.

In 1926-27, Kenneth Ellis (Parlophone), Robert Carr (Edison Bell), John Thorne (Aco), and John Buckley for (Vocalion) all recorded renditions  Evidently the latter two pronounced "Rio" (rye-o) in the uncharacteristic fashion, "ree-o"—and were chided for this by a reviewer. I'm not sure of the source of their renditions—Terry and Sharp, I believe.

Bullen's (1914) version, perhaps learned in the 1870s, went:

Oh Captain, oh Ca-apten heave yer ship to;
    Oh! you Rio
For I have got letters to send home by you.
    And I’m bound to Rio Grande
    And away to Rio Oh to Rio
    Sing fa-are you well my bonny young gal,
    For I’m bound to Rio grande.

It's unclear whether this is the start of some consistent theme, or just an odd verse. Stan Hugill treated it as the former when he presented his Version (F).
Last to post is this rendition of Hugill's Versions (A) and (B), which are fairly indistinguishable, being assigned to the same melody and to sets of lyrics that might as well be mix-matched with each other and Version (C). It's interesting that by this point chanties had really become a work "tool" for me—mainly to focus and pass the hours. I think here we were deep in a snowy winter, I working at a warehouse, and coming home to immediately record chanties in the garage in the dark evening. Chanty lyrics had by then become like a language for me, always going through my head. I hardly knew when I was singing them or just thinking them, whether I had just sung a lyric or if it was the first time...it was a sort of running soundtrack to my thoughts and movements. Hence my shout-out to Sufis at the beginning.
13 month later (and evidently several pounds lighter) I made the last installment to the "Rio Grande" series—the Norwegian version. However, it is not a traditional version. The solo lyrics of one of the poet Wergeland's composed (1842!) capstan-style songs had been fitted to the Rio Grande form for a 20th century collection. Well, it was one of my earlier attempts at Norwegian; I think I could do better (but not necessarily great) now.

There are many more historical references and recordings...It's about the 4th/5th most noted chanty of  all time. If somehow I was forced to give just one example of a "typical" chanty, there's a good chance that "Rio Grande" would be it.

Away, bullies, away,

Ranzo :{


  1. A lot of good work here on another one of my favorites. I appreciate the balanced and straight-forward approach to the history of this chanty and your lack of a need to nail down the location of "Rio Grande". I also like your sung versions, on and on. They don't make me want to work but to relax. And I especially like the picture of the old guy and his pipe at the end of one of them. J.

  2. John,
    I wonder if "work" and "relax" are not necessarily exclusive of one another. For some reason an analogy is coming to mind where if/when, say, your feet or muscles are sore from walking...then they may feel better (temporarily!) if you *keep* walking, rather than to stop. It numbs it! As long as you keep moving, you might forget about the pain--for that moment. That's the feeling I get from some heaving chanties. They catch you up in a period of forgetting. Time "passes" because, in that period for the singer, time doesn't seem to exist. And it seems like the sort of "submission," to the long task, that was required, might have some similarity to "relaxation."

    I'd love to heard what a long capstan chanty *really* sounded like, from the start of the job till finish. If, as they say, getting the anchor up could take 4 hours (!!), that would be something almost incredible. Presumably they would go through many different chanties, of course, but I'm sure some of them must have been spun out for a very long time. Given the way chanties have been documented, we've never really been able to see/hear that.

  3. Hi!

    A Brazilian-American anthropologist weighing in on this song...

    I first heard that "Rio Grande" referred to "Rio Grande do Sul", Brazil this last year, listening to a shantyman sing the song on WWOZ out of New Orleans.

    Since then, I've been tracking it down, because one of my areas of study and interest has been the Anglo-American presence in Brazil.

    Here are a couple of contributions I can make which might add to this discussion.

    There are in fact three "Rios" in Brazil: Rio Grande do Norte, Rio Grande do Sul and Rio de Janeiro. The argument that the song refers to Rio Grande do Sul is very dubious to anyone who knows Brazilian history.

    Porto Alegre in Rio Grande do Sul was not major port in the South Atlantic until the second half of the 19th century (the city was only really founded in 1798). Even then, it only started booming as a port town with a significant international trade during the Triple Alliance War of 1865-1870. By that time, at all accounts, "Rio Grande" was already well established.

    Even so, however, RGdS's trade always paled in significance compared to Santos (in São Paulo) and, especially, Rio de Janeiro.

    Furthermore, RGdS does not export rum and molasses and never has (as some versions of the song mention): RdJ did, however, well into the 19th century. RdJ was also a huge consumer of salt cod (also mentioned in some versions of the song) whereas RGdS has always been (and even today is) a big consumer of red meat. Finally, RdG was never renowned as a "Portuguese" colony (some versions of the song refer to "Portuguee" girls) or a colony that was significantly black or brown (other versions of the song refer to brown girls): Rio de Janeiro was both of those things.

    It thus seems very likely to me that this song may have been based on an earlier version that just mentioned "Rio" and not "Rio Grande". Rio Grande may have been added in the late 18th century, after Porto Alegre began to acquire a significant presence in global comerce. It may also just be a generic marker for "Exotic ports to the south", with Brazil, of course, being the most significant collection of these in the 19th century.

    Alternatively, if we presume that Jack was not the most educated of men, "Rio Grande" might simply have been an allusion to Rio with "grande" being added as sort of a logical complement, given that Rio was indeed the largest port in the South Atlantic for centuries.

    This second theory may also tie in to the song's gold connection.

    Significant discoveries of gold were NEVER made in southern Brazil. Gold was found in enormous quantities in CENTRAL Brazil in the 18th century, yes. And all of it came down to the coast to the back of Guanabara Bay (where geographically ignorant people have for centuries presumed a river existed), to be shipped out to the rest of the world from Rio de Janeiro. It's not beyond the realm of all possibility, then, that Jack - like many people who visit Rio, even today - thought that there was a "big river" running into the back of the bay, through which the gold from the interior came down.

  4. "...with Rio Grande do Sul being added in the late 19th century".

    If anyone wants to contact me, I can be found at macunaima30@yahoo.com.br or on facebook.