11 December 2011

#60-61 Oh, Susanna / Susannavisan

There's a fairly commonly voiced idea in chanty discussions that many common popular songs were used as chanties. This is not referring to the idea of popular song phrases being developed into chanties, but rather taking the songs just as they are or only with a change in lyrics (for example, parody versions). And it implies (I think) we are talking about songs that are first and foremost not associated with the chanty genre. In addition, all this essentially means that all but capstan chanties are excluded from this sort of wholesale borrowing, as the forms of most other chanties really can't match popular songs exactly. 

I think there is truth in this idea. However, the evidence that I've collected from the 19th and early 20th century references to chantying do not indicate that this practice was necessarily widespread. Perhaps they simply don't mention it because they think it is not worth mentioning—but that would be speculating. In my list of songs mentioned up through the 1920s, the number of such songs fitting the description are actually quite small. They include "John Brown's Body," "Marching Through Georgia," and "Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye." I'm inclined to thing—though it would take too much time to search right now—that a particular author or authors popularized the idea. This idea is voiced, for example, in this video I shot of a demonstration in which Glenn Grasso enjoins a group of capstan-working demonstrators to sing "Yellow Submarine" as a chanty . In it, he states,

After the Civil War, as many anchors were probably raised to "John Brown's Body" and "Marching through Georgia"... [cuts off]

Again, I think the idea is a good one, but it would appear to be speculation. There is really little evidence to say this. "John Brown's Body," by far the one mentioned more times, will be discussed in a later post.  As for "Marching through Georgia," I can say the following.

A New York Times article from January 1884, discussing chanties, states,

One or two land songs have of late years been transformed Into shantys. “Marching Through Georgia” is becoming a great favorite with Jack, although the air of this does not compare with those of several of his shantys.

Hmm, "one or two", only? "Recent years"? "Becoming a great favorite"? I don't know where the author got his/her information from, but it suggests that the song was only becoming popular for chanty use almost 20 years after the war.

Another mention of MTG is in Walter Jeffery's American maritime history, A Century of Our Sea Story (1900).  He makes a general statement, unsupported by references.

Sea chanties are peculiar to the merchant service. Some of these songs go back to the time of the French War, but many of them have an American origin—the New Orleans cotton trade, when niggers were "screwing cotton all de day," having taught our sailors many good choruses. The American Civil War inspired several other songs, or rather, as for example, in "Marching through Georgia," the sailors finding the adaptability of a marching chorus to a capstan tramp, took to singing soldiers' songs on shipboard.

It certainly rings true, but unfortunately the empirical evidence is not there. 

In 1906, PC Hutchison wrote about chanties in The Journal of American Folklore. After presenting the texts of several, he makes a summary note:

In short, any song not too complex to march by can be used for a capstan chantie, and the conditions imposed upon the windlass chantie are not more rigid…A favorite capstan chantie is "Marching through Georgia."

Perhaps, if MTG was so popular, one reason why it does not appear more in the chanty literature is that many of the early collectors were British, collecting from Britons, who may not have been in the habit of singing this American song and who certainly would not have offered it when prompted for "English folklore."

Stephen Foster's "Oh! Susanna", the present chanty, was one of these wholesale-utilized songs that seems like it would have appeared more in the historical record, but does not. Hugill notes likewise in Shanties from the Seven Seas. The song appears only in his unabridged edition. Hugill first quotes a fo'c'sle song parody that appeared in Joanna Colcord's collection.

The only chanty (capstan) form he found was a Swedish version in Sång under Segel. It's melody varies from Foster's song, and its Swedish text is original, not a translation of the English.

The close proximity to this popular song to chanty-singers is evinced in a 1893 work A Tale of Two Oceans. The author, E.I. Barra, is relating anecdotes of 

An Account of a Voyage from Philadelphia to San Francisco, Around Cape Horn, Years 1849-50, calling at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and at Juan Fernandez, In the South Pacific.

The passage is as follows.

When the top-sails were mastheaded, the pilot sung out to cast off the bow line. "Now run up your jib, Mr. Mate. Now ease away on your spring line;" and the vessel began to move from the wharf. Then the pilot sung out, "Let go your spring and stern lines!" Then the good ship began to forge ahead; and the last cord that held the ship tied to the land was cast off and she was as free as the bird that flew around her masthead. Just then a number of the passengers mounted the quarter-deck and struck up a song that was then quite in vogue in minstrel exhibitions, changing a few words of the chorus to suit the occasion. It ran thus:

"I dreamt a dream the other night when everything was still; 

I dreamt I saw Susanah, a coming down the hill. 

She had a pancake in her mouth; a tear was in her eye; 

Says I, ' O Susanah, dear; Susanah, don't you cry.'"

CHORUS. "O! Susanah, don't you cry for me! 
 For I'm bound to California with my washbowl on my knee."

Alas, the song itself was not being used as a chanty here. The search continues!

Tills jag kommer hem igen,

Ranzo :{

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