14 May 2013

The Sea Chanty Ensemble at Pomona College

A first? 
Please visit the Facebook page for this. I am doing lots more "blogging" there than I have been doing here!

15 March 2013

Completion of Carpenter Collection Chanties (11 March 2013)

After my work on the chanties in Stan Hugill's Shanties from the Seven Seas, I have been gradually, puzzle-piece fashion, going through the other print and recorded sources for historical chanties and learning items (chanty frameworks or distinctive variants thereof) not previously covered. One of the significant bodies of information, that contains much material not covered by Hugill, is the Carpenter Collection. Although the Collection is not fully accessible without a trip to the physical archive, portions of its content are available digitally, and 156 of its sailor-related recordings (not all chanties) have been made available on Folktrax. So, from the available content, I have identified what is unique (or reasonably different) from what was covered earlier. At this point, I have learned and recorded renditions of all that material. I may add to this body, either after gaining more complete access to the Collection or in the case of uncovering more information about some of the items—items that, while their titles are noted, cannot easily be tied to known songs.

A bit about Carpenter (from a recent draft of a writing of mine):

James Madison Carpenter (1888-1984)
As a student of Harvard English Department Professor George Lyman Kittredge, Carpenter was encourage to collect material that could be used as field evidence of English-language folk traditions, in the vein of ballad-collector Francis James Child. However, as biographers Jabbour and Bishop opine, Carpenter perhaps did not fit the mold of other folk-song scholars of the age. His expansive, comparative fieldwork never yielded any substantial and high-profile publications, and he never became established in a major university position though he continued to make field collections. Carpenter’s enormous repository of manuscripts and recordings was acquired by the Library of Congress in 1972. As with R.W. Gordon’s collection, Carpenter’s remained more or less unstudied, until later in the 20th century. Roy Palmer included some of the chanties in The Oxford Book of Sea Songs (1986), and Bob Walser started working with the collection in the 1990s.

Carpenter’s represents the largest field collections of chanties. In 1927, he made collections from sailors in Massachusetts and at Sailors’ Snug Harbor (Staten Island). In the summer of 1928 and for a full year in 1929, he continued the work in Britain and Ireland. The results went into his large dissertation, “Forecastle Songs and Chanties” (1929). Among the collection were some ninety-eight different chanties out of a total of about 375 original recordings, many of which he made using a portable Dictaphone machine. In all, Carpenter collected chanties from some sixty-one men. Most of Carpenter’s remarkable array of informants first went to sea in the 1870s and ‘80s, but included a couple men who first went to sea before 1850. A few of these men can be identified here.

Edward Robinson of Sunderland, among the oldest men interviewed, first went to sea in 1846, shipping to America, Canada, and the West Indies. The chanties sung by Robinson seem to match his era well. He knew the early (and later, less common) song “Cheer’ly Man,” and chanties that otherwise can be tied to the 1840s (2), 1850s (10), and 1860s (2), along with one I cannot otherwise tie to earlier than the 1870s. 

Mark Page, also of Sunderland, first shipped in 1849 and left the trade in 1879. His repertoire included chanties from the 1840s (2), 1850s (4), 1860s (5), and three others that are hard to determine.

"Mary's on the Island"

"What is That, My Dearie-O?"


James Forman of Leith first shipped in 1856. 

James Wright (Leith, shipped 1864), Robert Yeoman (Dundee, shipped 1869), 

Andrew Salters (Greenock, shipped 1872)

"Juba, Mind the Bee"

"Very Well Done, Jim Crow"

Richard Warner (Cardiff, shipped 1877)

William Fender (South Wales, shipped 1878), 

"Fire Down Below"

"Down in Those Valleys"

"Here We Come Home in a Leaky Ship"

Rees Baldwyn (South Wales, shipped 1879), 

"Haul Away Rosy"

"Pull Down Below"

"Hilo Johnnie Hilo"

John Conway (Wiclow, Ireland, shipped 1882), and Alexander Blue (?), 

"London Julie"

all indicated that they had learned certain chanties from experiences observing cotton- sugar-screwing, and other stevedores in the West Indies and the African-American South. Fender and Baldwyn’s singing is especially notable for what might be considered “Black” vocal style characteristics.

Nonetheless, much like with Sharp and his cohort, as with Terry, the material collected by Carpenter mostly or entirely comes from White British or American informants, naturally giving it a particular cast. However, while Gordon, by contrast, recorded both White and Black singers of work-songs and concluded the latter were influenced by the former, Carpenter felt the opposite. Carpenter wrote four articles on chanties for The New York Times, in July 1931 and October 1938, within which he stated his belief that African-American work-songs were a major contributing element to the form of chanties.

These working choruses, frequently taken from the Negro laborers of different countries, especially the Southern States, existed in large numbers, for the Negro required a song to lighten his work. I have found scores that have never been published. Most of them are of the simplest nature, being little more than a rhythmical, melodious drone of nonsense syllables. But created In the midst of toil and chanted over and over again for the brief respite that they gave from its weary monotony, they bear a hidden charm that the sailor was quick to discover. In the more pensive ones he must have found something of the strange satisfaction and restfulness of the chant.

And elsewhere:

Indeed, it is not surprising to find a fairly large proportion of the chanteys coming from the American South. Chanteymen were naturally quick to press into service aboard ship the Negro gang-work songs—with their droll fun, languorous cadences, and well-worn rhythm.

Further, he reasons from analysis of his data that chanties did not exist in great numbers until after Dana’s time—ideas that square with the historical evidence now available.

What is significant is that Carpenter arrived at those ideas without so much of a literary survey; his dissertation indicates that his book sources were just the 19th century ones of Alden, Luce, and L. A. Smith. Rather, his evidence was the recordings he gathered and the statements of his informants. The troupe of folklorists in Sharp’s school did also do fieldwork, but their style differed in that they always accompanied their discussions with a run-down of what prior authors on the subject had said. I think that all that secondary-source reading, though undoubtedly important in scholarship, colored their presentations in a way that Carpenter’s, perhaps, was not.

George Simpson:

"Blow High, Blow Low"

J.S. Scott:

"Hoist Her Up from Down Below"

John Middleton:

"Mind HowYou Swing Your Tail"

James Henderson (and others)

"All For the Grog"

James Dwyer:

"Louisiana Belle"

Alex Blue:

"Fire Away, Lilly, Come Down Below"

Robert Yeoman:

"A-Humble Lee"