26 December 2011

#83-85 The Gals o' Dublin Town (series)

I find those chanties particularly interesting that Stan Hugill presented in Shanties from the Seven Seas, but which occur just once or twice in other documentation—especially if Hugill was not aware of that documentation. Since Hugill’s work came after a long line of writers (and even after popular recordings had put some chanties “in the air”), it is often hard to say for sure whether what he is writing is based “purely” on his sea experiences and fieldwork, or whether it was significantly influenced by prior works. Some of Hugill’s chanties appear in no other works, which certainly makes those items very interesting, but makes them less “useful” (for lack of a better right word here) for the very fact that they cannot be corroborated. So, those that appeared to be rarely mentioned or unique, but which in fact can be discovered elsewhere are, as I said, of particular interest.

Of “The Gals of Dublin Town,” Hugill wrote:
”I fail to understand why such a popular capstan shanty as this should have been omitted from all collections.” Omitted from the well-known collections it was, but not from the historical record, and nor did others before Hugill fail to collect it.

The earliest reference I have comes in Basil Lubbock’s Round the Horn Before the Mast (1902). Lubbock tells of the voyage of a four-masted barque, Royalshire, from Frisco to Glasgow around Cape Horn, July-October 1899.  He mentions many chanties. However, despite what seems to have been his first hand experience with the genre, he chose in most cases to present lyrics from Davis and Tozer’s published collection. Fascinatingly, he also mentions “The Girls of Dublin Town,” though it did not appear in Davis/Tozer. It appears in a sentence added on—for no obvious reason—after a paragraph naming other chanties from Davis and Tozer. This gesture seems like it would be meaningless to the average reader, but for us it suggests that, after naming the chanties about which he’d read in books (presumed to be well-known), Lubbock is making an addition of a chanty that he knew of but which he had not seen mentioned. He wrote simply,

“The Girls of Dublin Town” is also a very popular chanty.

Two of the veteran sailors recorded by JM Carpenter in the late 1920s also knew this chanty. John Boyd of Belfast sang a version that included the lyric,

We'll scrape her down and scrub her around

James Dwyer, of Glasgow, was the other to sing it for Carpenter.

In a letter to the Wellington Evening Post, 9 June 1934, John Hutcheson mentioned chanties that he had learned while working aboard a packet ship between Liverpool and NY in 1871. Hutcheson mentioned several “obscene Western Ocean” chanties, i.e. those that one might consider to be classic deepwater items. In addition, he mentions some songs he heard sung by “Mississippi Screwmen,” presumably in New Orleans.

I have heard the Mississippi Screwmen (the very aristocrats of labour) screwing cotton in the hold till they raised the decks to the sound of ‘Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag that Flies the Single Star!’ etc.

Strictly speaking, he was not noting “The Gals of Dublin Town,” but rather the related “The Bonnie Blue Flag" (1861). It was a marching song of the Confederacy during the American Civil War. It contains the line,

The songs share a common air, also that of “The Wearing of the Green” and others.

The first version of the chanty presented by Hugill, learned from Paddy Delaney, shares elements of both the Irish independence and Confederate States autonomy themes. It sings about “The Harp without the Crown” and tells of an American ship with an Irish captain, Shenandoah, which flies the Irish flag.

 This was a heaving chanty, and could only be so because its poetic meter/ verse  pattern that I call the “Mary had a little lamb” pattern. This was unlike the more common couplet meter/pattern that was found in most halyard chanties. A few chanties have this MHALL pattern, to which any verses of this type could be fitted. So, Hugill’s Version (B) has a more generic sailor theme of,

Sometimes we’re bound for Liverpool, sometimes we’re bound for France,
But now we’re bound to Dublin Town to give the gals a chance.

 This pattern and style of verses are shared with common versions of (later to be discussed on this blog) “Heave Away, My Johnnies” and “Can’t You Dance the Polka?”

One other chanty fragment, noted by Hugill (but from a different source than the original I have) comes in Gordon Grant’s sketchbook, Sail Ho! (1931). Grant gave these lyrics:

Some say we’re bound for Liverpool,
Some say we’re bound for France,
I think we’re bound for Frisco boys,
To give the girls a chance.
Heave away! my bully boys;
Ho! Heave and bust her!
Hang your beef, my bully boys;
Ho! Heave and bust her!

It’s unclear whether this represents the same song; no tune is given. Because Hugill also presented this, I was obligated to record it, and I chose to fit this "Heave and Bust Her!" to the tune of “Can’t You Dance the Polka?” which it fits better than “The Gals of Dublin Town”—and to which, perhaps, it was more closely related.

In all, a look at this chanty illustrates that Hugill’s was not the last word on chanties and there was/is more to be discovered about their histories.

This marks the end of “Part One” of Hugill’s collection.

Until Part Two,

Ranzo :{


  1. I like the "Heave & Bust Her!" fragment. It needs some new verses.

  2. I sang this chanty both last year and this year live / in public for St. Patrick's Day.