06 December 2011

#41-52 A Long Time Ago (series)

The phrase, "a long time ago" has crept into many documented chanties. (See for example the recently discussed "Oh, Aye, Rio." ) There is a very good possibility, I'd say, that it was inspired by one of the early blackface minstrel songs, "Long Time Ago," published as early (in sheet music) as 1833. The noted performer, "M. T. Rice"—an error for T.D. Rice, I assume?—would have been performing during that era when the aesthetic was to create some sort of earnest facsimile (successful or not) or Black song. My impression (that is, without delving off into a whole study of Rice, early minstrelsy, and "Long Time Ago") is that this 1833 piece was one of those songs that was not wholly a creation of fancy, but rather something with a basis in African-American traditional song. If one looks at the music and text, one should see an exact match to the roadmap of a halyard chanty. 

Not of this specific chanty, however; its tune is different. I can't say whether it was inspired by the minstrel song or directly by Black songs that also inspired the minstrel number, but for the purpose of this discussion I don't think it matters much. The song form and the refrain, "long time ago," were "out there" in the musical language of the culture that produced chanties. The nostalgic connotations of the phrase in general, in my opinion, makes it typical chanty stuff.

Despite the early date of the minstrel song, and the evidently earlier life of an African-American song, evidence on record for the present chanty with "long time ago" chorus can only tie it to 1852. That is to say, verses from the song were sent, in 1926, to the song collectors Eckstorm and Smyth (Minstrelsy of Maine: Folk-songs and Ballads of the Woods and the Coast, 1927), by a Laura E. Richards of Gardiner, Maine. And she claimed that her mother learned the verses while a passenger on a vessel coming from Italy in 1852.
A Long Time Ago

I wish I was in Baltimore,
A-skating on the sanded floor,
     A long time ago;
Forever and forever,
Forever and forever, boys,
     A long time ago!

Many collections of the song, by scholars like JM Carpenter, RW Gordon, and WM Doerflinger, suggest it may have been frequently sung in the 1860s-70s, however all of their informants may as well have learned it significantly later. In fact, according to my notes, the chanty is not actually mentioned in publication first until 1902. Lubbock (Round the Horn Before the Mast) shipped out of Frisco in 1899. We are to imagine that the chanties he mentions were sung on that voyage, however, he did use secondary sources for chanty-related information, too. "A Long Time Ago" is only mentioned by title.

It's really only in Masefield's two works from 1906 that the chanty is first described with detail. The lyrics given are as follows:

A long, long time, and a long time ago.
     To me way hay O-hi-o.
A long, long time, and a long time ago.
     A long time ago.

A smart Yankee packet lay out in the bay.

A-waiting for a fair wind to get under way.

With all her poor sailors all sick and all sore.

For they'd drunk all their whisky, and 
could get no more. Etc., etc.

After this, Masefield, who had sea experience ca.1891-95, adds this note:

Some ten years ago [i.e. ca.1895] that was the most popular of all the chanties, but the fashion changes, and it may have given place to another.

It's surely from this note that Stan Hugill, in Shanties from the Seven Seas, got the (uncited/unsubstantiated) idea that, "[A Long Time Ago] became, by the nineties, the most-used halyard song of them all." Nonetheless, the idea that it was not especially popular until that decade may have been true.

Masefield's offering is similar (lyrically) to what Hugill gives as a Version (A). However, Hugill notes that he got his from a sailor of a New Zealand tops'l schooner.

The next published version, from a James Williams (1909) article, contains a bit of the lyrical theme that Hugill gave under Version (G). Incidentally, his opening couplets are prototypes of what may have become the popular version of "South Australia/Rolling King," and the floating "monkey" verse was mentioned in connection with "Lowlands Low." Towards the end come the "Bully John" verses, as in the video following.

Away down South, where I was born!
     To me weigh, heigh, heigh Yah!
Among the fields of cane and corn:
     A long time ago!

I wish to God I had never been born,
To go rambling round and round Cape Horn;

Around Cape Horn, where wild winds blow,
Around Cape Horn, thru frost and snow;

The wind from the sou'west ablowing a gale,
The packet ship she's crowding sail,

The monkey dressed in the soldier's clo's,
But where he came from, God only knows,

Oh, “Bully John" from Baltimore,
I knew you well on the Eastern Shore,

Oh, "Bully John" was the boy for me,
A bucko on land and a bully at sea,

Oh "Bully John," I knew him well,
But now he's dead and gone to hell,

'Tis a long time and a very long time,
'Tis a very long time since I made this rime,

In his English Folk-Chanteys (1914), Cecil Sharp presented this version collected from a "Captain Hole":

In Frisco bay there lay three ships
     To my way ay ay o,
In Frisco bay there lay three ships
     A long time ago.

And one of those ships was Noah's old Ark,
And covered all over with hickory bark.

They filled up the seams with oakum pitch.

And Noah of old commanded this Ark.

They took two animals of every kind.

The bull and the cow they started a row.

Then said old Noah with a flick of his whip:
Come stop this row or I'll scuttle the ship.

But the bull put his horn through the side of the Ark;
And the little black dog he started to bark.

So Noah took the dog, put his nose in the hole;
And ever since then the dog's nose has been cold.

This "Noah's Ark" theme is presented by Hugill in his Version (C)—which he says he learned from "Bosun Chenoweth."

Dick Maitland (from Doerflinger 1951) remembered a "Black Ball Line" version.

When I was young and in my prime,
     To me way-ay-ay yah,
I thought I'd go and join the line,
     Oh, a long time ago.

And as a sailor caught a shine
In a lot they called the Black Ball Line

Now come all you young fellers that's going to sea,
And just listen a while unto me.

I'll sing you a song and I won't keep you long.
It's all about the Black Ball Line

Just see the Black Ballers preparing for sea
You'd split your sides laughing the sights you would see

there's tinkers 'n' tailors, shoemakers 'n' all,
For they're all shipped as sailors on board a Black Ball.

Now, one more pull and we'll let her go
We'll h'ist her up through frost and snow

Just one more pull and we'll show her clew,
And another long pull and that will do.

Hugill has set this as Version (E).

An "A-Roving" style version was given to Doerflinger by Capt. James P. Barker, who first went to sea 1889.

Then up aloft this yard must go,
     To me, way, ay, ay, yah,
Then up a-loft this yard must go,
     For it's a long time a-go.

I placed my hand upon her knee

“I think, young man, you're rather free!” [etc]

Hugill's corresponding item is Version (F).
It so happens that, for variety (and since Hugill designated the same melody for practically all of his versions), I used the above Capt. Barker melody for the next form, Hugill's Version (H). That one best matches a version sung by Capt. Patrick Tayleur, on the theme of a China voyage:

There was an old lady who lived in Dundee,
     To me way, hay, hay, yah
There was an old lady who lived in Dundee,
     Oh, a long time ago

Now her sons (they) grew up and they all went to sea

One became mate and the other a sailor

But the one that I'm going to tell you of, the story is:

He joined a Hark bound out for the East

And not as a sailor nor yet as a mate

He joined as the master of that fine clipper ship

Now, you all remember the ship that I mentioned.

'Twas the Catty Sark, (and) her name was so high

Now (Oh) he took her out East and he lost his old ship (his whole trip)

He took her out East as these words I have told you

Out to Foochow and then home again

Now, un'appily for him, he married out there

A nice little girl with a long pigtail!

Oh, she wore the trousers and he wore the shirt

But when I can tell you the voyage 'e made 'ome.

Now it's a long, long time and a very long time
Oh a long, long time and a very long time

One hundred and eight days, (oh) he did sail.

And 'e used to look at 'is Chinese wife and say,

If it 'adn't a been for your unluck on board!

Now, a long, long time and a very long time.

Now, I told you he was always a-growlin' at 'is wife,

But when in London he did arrive,

The owners they told him he had made a record voyage!

So what did he do but he's blessed his young wife

And instead of callin' her Mong Sallee

He called her the sweet name of Mong Cutty Sark

Capt. Tayleur's version, above, actually begins with a lyric that's off topic from the main theme, a limerick-ish "There was an old lady who lived in Dundee." Hugill learned a version with more "There once was..." content from a Capt. Kihlberg—his Version (B). My rendition elaborates on the theme, in the form of topical sarcasm and personal jokes on those present.

Dick Maitland's version of this chanty, recorded by Alan Lomax in 1939 and later released on the Library of Congress' American Sea Songs and Shanties  album, has what appears to have been actually the most common theme—one similar to "Roll the Cotton Down":

Now this is a song that's very popular in the vessels bound across with cotton from Mobile, New Orleans, Savannah, Charleston, any place where they load cotton, and it's usually sang with a gusto when they do sing it.

Way down South where I was born,
     Way ay ay yah,
I've picked the cotton and hoed the corn,
     Oh a long time ago.

In the good old State of Alabam' ,
So I've packed my bag, and I'm going away,

When I was young and in my prime,
Oh, I served my time in the Black Ball Line.

I'm going away to Mobile Bay,
Where they screw, the cotton by the day.

Five dollars a day's a white man's pay,
And a dollar and a half is a black man's pay.

When the ship is loaded, I'm going to sea,
For a sailor's life is the life for me,

Hugill's corresponding version is (D). 

So, after these eight (!) different versions (lyrical) of "A Long Time Ago," Hugill adds in two significant melody varieties he found in secondary sources: Sharp (1914 - singer was James Tucker) and The Shell Book of Shanties. Here are the two examples realized.
I really like that second one. But it doesn't stop there. Hugill offers the following melody variant as sung by his friend, Harding.

For an interesting comparison: There are several Caribbean versions of this chanty documented, including a recording made in the Bahamas by A. Lomax (1935) and another he made in St. Kitts in 1962.

Also related to all these is a Plattdeutsch chanty, "De Hoffnung"; the Germans were also in the Cape Horn game by the 1890s! It uses the English chorus, but the solo lyrics tell a narrative about a smart captain getting the better of the Devil.

In all, there are 12 items pertaining to this series that Hugill presented. That's the most for any of the chanties!

It's been a long, long time, and a very long time,
I'm a-postin' up content to this blog of mine...and a long time to-go!

Ranzo :{

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