09 December 2011

#59 The Sailor Fireman

This is one song's discussion where we can easily add a bit to Stan Hugill's in Shanties from the Seven Seas. The song appears only in the complete edition of the collection. Hugill had merely republished this English-language song that was in a Swedish chanty-collection (Sång under Segel).

It seems that the Scandinavians had preserved a work song that Hugill had not encountered in his experience, nor had the well-read chanty-collection editors. The Swedish editor, Sternvall, noted the song's appearance in an 1850 (Google Books says 1851?) volume called Nigger Melodies. We can add more.

The song seems to belong to an era in which Black laborers on the steamboats of American rivers had developed a rather distinctive working culture. Those that tossed fuel into the boilers, to provide steam for the boats, were known as "stokers" or "firemen." White writers on African-American song described the singing of these boat hands as something of great emotional expression, if not "wildness."

An ca.1832/3 observation (Latrobe, The Rambler in North America, 1835) on a steamboat on the Ohio noted, "the wild song of the negro fire-men." Also set on the Ohio, a story published 1842 (Ingraham, “Trials and Triumphs; or, Struggles of Early Genius”), describes:

The half-naked negro firemen busily casting huge sticks of wood into the mouths of the row of yawning furnaces beneath the serried boilers, accompanying their labor by a loud and not unmusical song;

And for Mississippi, ca. 1843-46 (Regan, The Western Wilds of America, 1859), there's this:

The fires, as is usual, were upon this lower deck, served by negroes. As we lay with our hats drawn over our faces in a half doze, the firemen struck up one of those singularly wild and impressive glees which negroes alone can sing effectively. By turns the singer would break out into measured tones of laughter, followed by an outburst of musical salvoes, very singular and very commanding, coming as they did from the lungs of half a dozen or more. This would be succeeded by a sharp, piercing, “desolate howl,” and this again by the full chorus of negro voices, aided by the black cook, who, captivated by the strains, would lean his breast up against his galley door, and grin out his satisfaction in true character, To describe in writing, however, the singular effect of this strange medley of sounds, would be impossible.

Evidently this sort of labor (and, one understands, the songs as well) was on the wain for Black men by the 1850s, as an editorial from 1851 claims,

The firemen on the steam-boats on the western waters are now whites, where they used to be free coloured men; and the negro's song, as he filled his furnaces, has ceased on the Ohio and Mississippi. [Quoted in Bright, Free Blacks and Slaves, 1853]

Indeed, the references to this genre/practice peter out in the 1850s, save for perhaps the most famous reference of all, in Allen's Slave Songs of the United States (1867). The work includes African-American songs from before the Civil War, including a Mississippi steamboat song and a Savannah firemen's song. Allen says in the intro,

These are the songs that are still heard upon the Mississippi steamboats—wild and strangely fascinating—one of which we have been so fortunate as to secure for this collection. This, too, is no doubt the music of the colored firemen of Savannah, graphically described by Mr. Kane O'Donnel, in a letter to the Philadelphia Press, and one of which he was able to contribute for our use....

The firemen's song being referred to is "Heave Away," which appears to be directly related to the famous sailors' chanty, "Heave Away, My Johnnies," and which was often quoted/reprinted in later works of the 19th century.

But wait, not so fast—there's another reference, in the 1860s. And yet it also acknowledges the dying out of the phenomenon:

For many years the steamboats on Western and Southern rivers were, almost without exception, manned by crews of negro slaves. Even after white labor began to encroach upon the occupation of the “deck-hand” and “roustabout,” the vocation of “fireman” was peculiarly the negro's. He basked in an atmosphere insupportable to whites, and delighted in the alternation of very hard labor and absolute idleness. It was not uncommon for large steamers to carry a crew of forty or fifty negro hands, and it was inevitable that these should soon have their songs and peculiar customs. Nine-tenths of the “river songs” (to give them a name) have the same refrain, and nearly all were constructed of single lines, separated by a barbarous and unmeaning chorus. The leader would mount the capstan as the steamer left or entered port, and affect to sing the solo part from a scrap of newspaper, “the full strength of the company” joining in the chorus...
[Brown, “Songs of the Slave,” McBride’s Magazine 2(39) (Dec. 1868).]

A song snippet is then given:

What boat is that my darling honey?
     Oh, oh ho, ho ay yah yah-ah!
She is the “River Ruler”; yes my honey!
     Ah a... yah a...ah!

There is more that can be said about the relationship between these "stokers" (steamboat fire-men), actual firemen (i.e. who put out fires!), and stevedores—all of African-American stock and all singing songs that were observed to be similar. The cross-utilization and vagueness are perfectly represented by the chorus, "Fire down below," which can refer to fire that needs to be put out, fire that needs to be stoked below deck, or even (in the sailors' case) a bawdy metaphor...and which crops up in other sailor songs.

I have located four unique references to the present song, the so-called "Sailor Fireman."

1. A dramatic scene published in 1839 (Bentley’s Miscellany vol.6), subtitled "Hudson River Steam-boat Dialogues," contained the following "stoker's chaunt":

The ebben tide ib floating past,
     Fire down below!
The arrival time ib coming fast.
     Fire down below!
Racoon cry in de maple tree,
     Fire down below!
The wood ib on fire, and the fire a sea,
     Fire down below!
Oo a oo oh! fire down below!

African-American songs of this period seem to have been often refered to as "chaunt"—perhaps the predecessor of chant and chanty.

2. Obviously a work song belonging to the trade, like "Stormy" this too was adopted by White's Serenaders, a minstrel troupe from NYC, by 1848. Here are the published lyrics of their version (probably the version refered to by the Swedish editor, Sternvall, noted above):

I'll fire dis trip, but I'll fire no more
     Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh!
Oh, pay me my money , and I'll go on shore
     Fire down below.

Miss Fanny Bell, oh, fare you well
I'm gwine away, p'r'aps to — [Hell]

A bully boat, and a bully crew
An' a bully ragin' captain, too

De possum jump, and de panther roar
I woke dis mornin' at half-past four

I crept out safely from my hive
An took a dram at half-past five

Says I, “ole boat, let's have no tricks”
Her biler bust at half-past six

So now we trabbel under sail
'Kase Jonah's de man dat swallowed de whale

I'll fire dis trip but I'll fire no more
Pay me my money, an I'll go on shore

3. The song remained in traditional use in 1853, according to the observations of F.L. Olmsted (A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States, 1856), who heard it sung by steamboat hands on the Red River (Louisiana).

We backed out, winded round head up, and as we began to breast the current, a dozen of the negro boat-hands, standing on the freight, piled up on the low forecastle, began to sing, waving hats and handkerchiefs, and shirts lashed to poles, towards the people who stood on the sterns of the steam-boats at the levee. After losing a few lines, I copied literally into my note-book:

“Ye see dem boat way dah ahead.
De San Charles is arter 'em, dey mus go behine.

So stir up dah, my livelies, stir her up; (pointing to the furnaces).

Dey's burnin' not'n but fat and rosum.

Oh, we is gwine up de Red River, oh!

Oh, we mus part from you dah asho'.

Give my lub to Dinah, oh!

For we is gwine up de Red River.

Yes, we is gwine up de Red River.

Oh we must part from you dah oh...”

4. Elijah Kellogg's 1869 novel The Ark of Elm Island contains a scene with Black sailors doing a walk-away manoever—a shipboard connection.

“Walk away with it, my boys,” said the captain; and, taking the warp on their shoulders, they walked along the deck, still keeping step to the song.


“Take de line, an' walk away,
     Ho-o; ho, ho, ho.    
Gwine to leabe you; cannot stay,
     Fire down below.

Gwine to leabe you, Johnny Bull,
'Cause yer dunno how ter pull,

Like as do dis Yankee crew,
Warpin' ob de ballahoo...”

So...here's the song as it appeared in SfSS. Something ripe for "revival"?

oh-oh, oh-oh, oh,

Ranzo :{

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