27 March 2012

#111 High O, Come Roll Me Over!

The historiography of this chanty is as short, as one I last 'b-logged, “Randy Dandy O.” And like that one, there seems to be a direct path between an early 20th century publication and Stan Hugill’s later presentation. Likewise, Hugill’s version is supposed to have come from a personal informant—the same one, Harding the Barbarian—though it differs little (one might typically expect more of a divergence in two authentic collections) from the earlier print version. I’m not calling Hugill a liar! But in this case there is certainly something funky going on.

The early print version comes from John Masefield. I’ve earlier critiqued his reliability as an information source about chanties. To sum it up, he seems to have been exposed to some chanties at sea, but his personal experience only accounts for some of the chanties he chose to present. In addition, he often made what I deem to be suspicious changes to chanty lyrics (for reasons that need not be elaborated here).

Masefield mentioned the song in a January 1906 article called “Sea-Songs.” In the following passage from that, he claims that a Danish sailor personally made up the song!

In a sailor's repertory there are many chanties, which are seldom heard. The men grow tired of the old words and the old music, and do not work so lustily to them… As the old songs die out, new songs are made, or, it may be, yet older songs regain their popularity. I knew a Danish sailor who passed his spare moments in inventing chanties. He had one half-finished specimen of which he was very proud. It may have been perfected since I knew him, and perhaps it is now well known "from Callao to Rio, by the west." It was not a literary chanty, nor was the tune very remarkable. It ran as follows:

Oho, why don't you blow?
A, ha, come roll him over.
Oho, why don't you blow?
A, ha, come roll him over.

Masefield gave just one verse; indeed, he called the chanty “half-finished.” The tune was not supplied.

Later that year, Masefield’s A Sailor’s Garland was published, in which he presented the same chanty items that were in the earlier article, but usually in fuller versions. In a number of cases it seems clear (i.e. in my estimation) that he composed additional verses at the time of publication. Here there are more verses to a halyards version of “Come Roll Him Over,” which, based on what he said in the earlier publication, seem they may have been newly composed.

Oho, why don't you blow?
Aha. Come roll him over; 

Oho, why don't you blow?
Aha. Come roll him over

One man. To strike the bell, 


Two men. To take the wheel,

Three men. Top-gallant braces,

Coming to Hugill's notes, which are very brief, he says he got it from Harding. The Barbadian claimed at the time (1932) that it was still being used in the West Indies for "rolling logs." If that was the case, it seems unlikely that Masefield’s "Dane" made it up.

According to Hugill’s presentation, there is only one "pull" per chorus; he states he thought it would have been good for tacks/sheets, probably for this reason, but ascribes it to halyards (like Masefield).  Hugill also seems to have extrapolated (made up) or supplied the “rest” of the verses, along the “1 man, 2 men, 3 men, etc.” pattern.

Hugill’s would seem to be the first presentation to give a melody, though his notation is irregular in its rhythm. This is one of those cases where I'd suspect there is something funky that goes on, in the singing of the song, that his basic notation was not able to capture well. Either the song was indeed not in strict meter or there was some overlapping of soloist and chorus that, when rendered by a singer without chorus, or when notated on a single staff, does not come out quite right. I decided to imagine it in the slower, non-metered (breathing-like) rhythmic style.

Revival renditions prior to mine had made the decision to keep the singing in strict meter and at a faster tempo, although I am having a hard time imagining the work done to such an arrangement.

Jim Mageean was perhaps first to record a version of this (i.e. based off of Hugill), on the 1978 album The Capstan Bar. [The rendition may be heard at this link, if one skips towards the end of the program.] It goes along steadily, in a different rhythm than notated by Hugill, in 4/4 meter. A variation of this version, as heard here performed by Caryl Weiss and friends at Mystic Seaport, overlaps solo and chorus to fit the song over a 3/4 meter.

Something major is certainly “missing” from our knowledge this chanty. Hugill and Masefield seem to corroborate its existence, yet one or both would seem also to be not completely genuine. Is this a chanty whose performance style is now “lost” to us, due to a break in tradition? My interpretation, created from the written page of Hugill, is significantly different from other revival renditions that I presume (?) were based on Hugill. This one is open for debate!

Bunt-a-bo’ing,

Ranzo :{

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