Article MT097 - from Musical Traditions No 9, Autumn 1991

The Songs of the French Sailors

the rediscovery of the French tradition



For a long time amateur singers of sea songs have had the magnificent repertoire of Anglo-American shanties as their sole reference.  french01.jpg - 18.8 KToday they are rediscovering the originality and the richness of French sea songs.  From 1981 the publication 'Anthology of Sea Songs' by the magazine Chasse-Maree, the fruit of some 15 years of research into the sailors' oral heritage, has largely contributed to this new interest.  This aspect of maritime culture has nevertheless still not received the recognition in France that it merits.  We are far from the situation in the USA or in Britain, where ballads and shanties form a part of the atmosphere of all the festivals in honour of traditional sailing boats, and resound in all the pubs and bars along the coast!

August 1985 and an evening concert in Sables d'Olonne.  Christian Desnos leads a chant a virer (capstan shanty) joined on the chorus by the four other singers of the group 'Cabestan', and by the public.  It is a version of the famous song The 31st of the Month of August collected 3 years earlier from M. Aoustln, marine carpenter.  When the song is ended, an old man in the room gets up to show that he knows it, but not like that.  His father, M. Belfleur, a Newfoundland fisherman born in 1872 - 33 campaigns under sail - often hummed this song, which he began to sing to an attentive audience:

De Saint-Malo j'avons parti
Sur une frégate bien jolie
Pour s'en aller dedan La Manche
Dedam la Manche vers Bristol
Pour aller attaquer Les Anglais.

On loffe, on loffe au même instant
On jette Les grappins dedan
C'est à grands coups de hashes et d 'armes
Et c'est à grands coups de canon
L'Anglais amène son pavillon.

Que va-t-on dire a Saint-Malo
D'avoir pris on si grand bateau
D'avoir pris on si grand navire
De cent vingt pieces de canon
Nous gui n'en avions que trente de bons!

From Saint-Malo I had gone
On a right pretty frigate
To sail away down the Channel
Down the Channel for Bristol
To go and attack the English.

We luffed, we luffed, at the same instant
We threw the grapnels in
And with heavy blows of axes and weapons
And with thundering cannons
The English struck their colours.

What will they say in Saint-Malo
To have taken such a great boat
To have taken such a great ship
With a hundred and twenty guns
We who had only thirty still working.

A version totally unknown until this day! And a moment of true pleasure for Cabestan.  This kind of exchange between singers and audience is just what the artisans of the present rebirth of interest in sea songs had been hoping for.  To get to this point, a profound change of mentality was necessary: we are finally rediscovering the importance of the oral tradition.  No, the song of the French sailors is not the short list of printed texts often of literary origin which has been circulating for half a century; it is the treasure which lies hidden in the memory of the people on the coasts of France.

The thread had been broken.  The relaunch of an effort to collect from old sailors has happily permitted a recovery of direct contact between those who know a song and those who wish to learn it.  Progressively through meeting men of sail, a total culture is revealing itself: Jean-Francois de Nantes or Valpariso appear no longer as isolated songs, on the contrary, we see them as representative elements of a rich and varied repertoire.

What makes the popular tradition valuable is the very fact that it has never been set down in writing.  How many human relationships were necessary for one centuries-old song to come down to us by the sole vehicle of oral tradition? Songs dating back 300 years have thus been conserved, rejuvenated and refined by so many changes and human contact that they have become incomparable testimonies to the mentality of the sailors along our coast, and jewels of our cultural heritage.

The apparent paucity of the repertoire:

Up to about 1970 most records of sea songs available in France were interpreted by choirs following arrangements which had more in common with classical music than the popular tradition, or else by rivegauche singers (Parisian singer-songwriters) who give 'Jack Tar' the conventional image of a musical comedy character - rough hewn, with a stentorian voice, singing work songs like Jean Francois de Nantes to a jolly waltz rhythm, accompanying himself on guitar!  french03.jpg - 4.7 KFar from these concert arrangements, the authentic hauling-song would only ever be uttered in the wind, when straightforward combined strength was no longer sufficient to liven up a manouvere on the ship.  The crudity of its words gave the extra 'crack of the whip' ...

It was considered at this time that the whole traditional repertoire of sailors had been saved from obscurity by the work of Captain Armand Hayet, who in 1927 wrote a book on the Chansons de Bord.  This well-written work presents, in the words of the author: '14 of the 18 true chansons de bords of the sailors'.  Only 18 songs in the oral tradition! In the course of several centuries of navigation, French sailors must certainly have had little imagination, if one refers to the example of the English or Americans with several hundred shanties in their repertoire.  These songs have been published in more than 30 collections of which the first, neverthless copious, goes back to 1887! And from 1945 the first high quality documentary records appeared, produced by the Library of Congress.

To compensate for this apparent paucity (due, according to all the evidence, to the miserable research), certain interpreters delved into the American tradition; thus Hugues Auffrey adapted a shanty, Santy Anna and made a hit Santiano.  Others like the 'Compagnons du large' reclalmed neopopular lyrics by Yann Nibor or Henry Jaques (Le Grand-mat veut de la route, inspired by the shanty Clear the track, let the bulgine run) or by Theodore Botrel ( La Corsairienne).

During family dinners, evenings in cafes or in rare moments of relaxation on board, merchant sailors and fishermen of the '60s sang Parisian successes with a maritime theme (Je suis le Maitre a bord) or songs by Pierre MacOrlan (Fanny de Lannionn).

The painstaking work of archive research, of bibliography work and, above all, of collecting from old sailors undertaken in the last 15 years has shown that, far from being imitations of English or American shanties, French sea songs have specific characterisics of great interest: songs for haling boats from the quay and for rowing, (unknown in England), a particular system of response in chorus, a repertoire of deck dances, and an original style of singing, very different from those used in the nearby rural areas.  To research them, study them, and sing them today is a necessary and fruitful exercise.

Folklorists and Sailors - eyewitness accounts of the 19th Century

During the years between 1830 and 1850, a very strong interest in maritime culture came into being.  Sail was then at the peak of its expansion, and the quays of the great merchant ports resounded to the songs of sailors on the spree.  The first to interest themselves in this oral heritage were the creators of the journal La France Maritime, notably Edouard Corbiere and Jules Lecompte.  Edouard Corbiere, soon to be followed by a few other contemporary novelists, makes frequent allusions to chants du bord (lit.  'on board' songs) in his numerous sea stories.  He was perhaps the first, around 1820, to publish a complete version of an original popular song (often sung on board ship, he says):
Adieu donc la belle je m'en va
Puisquc mon bâtiment s'en va
Je m'en vais faire un tour à Nantes
Puisque ie Roi me we demande ...

Farewell then pretty one, I must away
For my ship sails
I must away to Nantes
For the King asks this of me ...
From the same period, in English-speaking countries, we have maritime novels of almost ethnographic precision, where allusion is made to shanties; 'Two Years Before the Mast' R W Dana, 1840 being the most famous of them.

In his 'Picturesque Marine Dictionary' (1832), Jules Lecomte explains in detail the use of work songs on board ship.  His precious account was, until the works of Armand Hayet, the only precise reference on this subject.

Augustin Jal in his 'Scenes de la Vie Marltime' (1832) precisely describes rondes du bord (ring dances) and the use of instruments, and cites 12 songs "With which the sailors amused themselves during leisure time on board, and which are quite out of place except between the bowsprit and the booms."  Mostly very ribald songs, he quotes only two in their entirety: Le Navire Merveilleux (The Wonderful Ship) and Les Dix Navires Charges de Ble (The Ten Ships Loaded With Wheat).

The vitality of this popular tradition is equally well described in the works of Gabriel de la Landelle, an officer of the 'Royale' and a prolific writer.  He sprinkles his maritime novels with genre scenes, describing the rejoicings of the sailors, and he published several essays on ship's customs.  Notably in 1844, La Landelle produced an article on sailors' rondes (ring dances) where the words and music to several songs are set down.  Thus Le Navire Merveilleux, an evocation of an imaginary ship, goes thus:

La misaine est en dentelle
Les huniers en satin blanc
Les gabiets de la grands hune
Sont des filles de 18 ans ...

The fore-sail is of lace
The topsails in white satin
The topmen of the main-top
Are 18 year old girls ...
He describes the ring-dances thus:
The rondes, the real rondes of the foredeck, those are the popular songs.  They are not cooed in a husky voice, french02.jpg - 15.9 Kthey are bellowed full-voiced, with all your lungs, they are repeated whilst dancing Breton style.  If one funloving individual gets up and takes five or six companions with him, the song will start, and you will see the circle get bigger and sometimes a second circle will form around the first.

Sometimes they go round in a circle, more often they only do 3 or 4 steps from right to left jumping in time at the point of the refrain.  I will never forget the circumstances in which I heard the ronde "Titi Lariti" for the first time.  We were returning from Brazil and approached the coast of France in the middle of winter.  The sailors were shivering; they had got together in a tight huddle walking along the gangway between the fore-mast and the main-mast: they were stamping in time, and in this way, close together, they were singing ...

Quand j'étais chez mon père,
Quand j'etais chez mon père,
Petite à la ti ti, la ri ti, tonton lariton
Petite à la maison.
On m'envoyait à l'herbe pour cueillir du cresson.
La rivière est profonde, je suis tombée au fond.

When I was at my father's house
When I was at my father's house
Petite a la ti ti la riti tonton lariton
Little one at home
They sent me to the green fields to cut some cress
The river is deep and I fell to the bottom.
Familiar traditional lyrics.  The girl is saved by three sailors, and the song ends to the glory ...  'of all people of the sea who smell of tar'.

In spite of all these promising texts, unfortunately no-one carried on the work, for reasons which are difficult to understand.  It was not until l00 years later that a folklorist from the maritime world, Capt Hayet, was to describe the oral heritage of sailors.

The great regional collectors:

In the first half of the l9th century the Romantic movement incited writers such as Gerard de Nerval, George Sand to take an interest in peasant culture.  and the first great collectors of popular song appeared in France around 1840.  One man amongst them, E de Coussemacker, was to engage in exploring the coastal areas, coastal villages and the parts of towns in the ports of his area which sailors frequented.  In 18S6 he published his 'Popular Songs of the Flemish in France'.  Straight away we see that the harvest is abundant, and of exceptional quality: magnificent Icelandic fishermen's songs describing the cod fishing campaigns of Dunkirk in the 18th century, ballads about the corsairs and songs of dockers and fishwives and De Coussemacker, aware of the interest in this material, grouped them in a special chapter.  This practice, alas, was not to be imitated in the other regions possessing a strong maritime tradition.

In Brittany, for example, Hersart de la Villemarque, the famous author of 'Barzaz Breiz', was never able to discover the Gwerz Penmarc'h, a remarkable piece dating back to the 15th or 16th century, never having prospected on the coasts.   Breton / French / English Text:

...Plou gasso kelou da Voalen,
Colled ar flod, named unan?
Unan hanved ar Maout-guen
A salc'haz en avel d'an Dorchen.

Qui portera la nouvelle à Audierne,
Que la flotte est perdue excepté un navire
Un navire appelé le Mouton Balnc
Qui tint au vent de la Torche.

Who will take the news to Audierne
That the fleet is lost except for one ship
One ship called the White Sheep
Keeping to windward off La Torche.
One tenacious prejudice most likely due to the social origins of the collectors, born into spheres foreign to the idea of maritime culture (rural nobility, the intellectual bourgeoisie of the town, teachers or civil servants), actually assumes that the coastal populations do not possess a specific tradition.  Armand Guerand, who collected hundreds of songs in the Nantes region around 1850 found only "two sailors' songs" one of which is a very beautiful rowing song:
...Tire tire, marinier tire
Tire va donc sur les avirons...

Pull, pull, sailor pull
Pull, go on, at the oars.....
Perhaps he did not dare venture into the sailors' dives along the quai de la Fosse.  However, a short time after (in 1854) he collected a superb haling song from the port of Paimboeuf:
Encore un coup laoura
Kailiman ah
Ah ah ah ah kaliman
Encore un coup laoura

One more pull laoura
Kaliman ah
Ah ah ah ah kaliman
One more pull laoura
Did he hear it by chance on a walk around the port?  In those days, hundreds of deepwater ships, coasters or whalers, were anchored at Paimboeuf.  The place was propitious for international trade and this explains perhaps the origin of this song, which is a nicely gallacised version of the shanty Cheerily Men.

Fifty years later, at the beginning of the 20th century, one could still hear work songs whilst walking through the large ports.  Capt Vandesande, whom I met in 1981, remembered the atmosphere in the port of Dunkirk in his youth:

We careened a ship; to careen it there was a hulk with two enormous pulleys and two capstans, the men went round the capstans which pulled on the caliornes (big blocks) lashed high on the mast; little by little she came round to the horizontal, flush with the water; at that moment they stopped.  Whilst tramping round the capstan, they sang a song which I liked a lot:

As-tu connu le Minérau
Hourra mes bouées hourra
Chest un joli petit bateau
Tra lalala lalala la la...

Did you know the Minérau
Hoorah my boys hoorah
It is a pretty little boat
Tra lalala lalala la la....
Throughout the l9th century numerous dancing songs and ballads were nonetheless collected by chance in the regional surveys.  Mostly songs with a maritime theme come from the coastal regions.  The surveys by Noulle and Fleury in Normandy, by Sebillot, Orain and Cletiez in Brittany, Bujeaud in Poltou, Aunis and Saintonge made known, amongst others, several versions of the 31st of the Month of August, from 1845 for the words and 1865 for the tune.

french04.jpg - 26.7 K

Naval Conscription, to which both seamen and rivermen were held, has nevertheless contributed to propagating the repertoire in vogue in La Royale (Navy) in the interior of the country.  Around 1880, in the heart of Nivernais, A Millieu collected a beautiful ballad on a naval combat from the Seven Years' War, describing the 80-gun 'Foudroyant' being opposed by three English ships on the 25th of February 1758!

Le premier bord quails ont tiré
Ils nous ont bien tout démâté
Ont cassé le mat d'artimon
Avec toutes ses cordes
Les pauvres matelots, hélas,
Criaient miséricorde.

Notre combat a bien duré
Trois jours et trois nuits sans cesser
On voyait les boulets rouler
D'un bâtiment à l'autre
Jamais il n'avait été vu
Combat semblable au notre!

At the very first broadside
They dismasted us
They broke the mizzen mast
With all its rigging
The poor sailors, alas
Cried out for mercy.

Our battle lasted
A good three days and three nights without cease
We saw the cannon balls roll
From one ship to the other
There never was seen
Such a battle as ours.

Otherwise, this ballad and others of the same type have been found in French Canada where the first collected items go back to 1860 with E Gagnon.  From 1915 M. Barbeau was even to record singers on cylinders, safeguarding very ornamental singing styles which are totally original.

The first sailors' work-songs were published at the beginning of the 20th century by E Herpin in Saint-Malo (Vielles Chansons de Saint-Malo, 1906) and J Richepin of Dieppe.  These hauling songs have surprising lyrics and melodies which evoke the English shanties.  Herpin specifies that the sailors' style of singing is so unusual as to defy description!

Ah la ira lahoula tchalez
Ah mes boyes faladoué
Dans le port de Dieppe nous allons rentrer
Ah mes boyes faladoué.

Ah la ira lahoula tchalez
Ah my boys faladoue
Into the Port of Dieppe we shall come again
Ah my boys faladoue
Seventy years would have to pass before the importance of these songs would be recognised and their function better understood.  In 1974, the Capt Jean Recher, evoking the arrival of the three-masted Newfoundlander in Fecamp, brings interesting detail to our attention: "We waited for the boats on the end of the jetty, they threw us a line, and all the people who were there pulled the ship, we called "haul on the rope".  There were lots of people to pull: when we pulled, we had the rope on our shoulders, some behind, some in front, and we walked".  Other Newfoundland fisherman said "we used to sing hauling songs whilst walking".
La voilà la joyeuse border
Aloué lafalaloué.

Here comes the joyful crew
Aloue lafalaloue.

S'Accorder:

To sing or 'tune-in' to order, to work together.  For the word s'accorder, one finds in the 'Picturesque Dictionary of the Sea' by Jules Lecomte (1832) the following definition:
Accorder (s') v.a. to act simultaneously, together; this expression is used to express the action of several men or several forces acting toward a common end, and to the same goal all concentrated on one single object.  In a ship's boat it is necessary for the rower's to s'accorder, to transmit absolutely together the force that their oars transmit to the boat, to give it the impulse.  As the oars must be turn in turn in the water and out of the water it is necessary to synchronise (accorder) the oars.
When the sailors haul on a rope, in order for the force of these united actions to be the most complete, they s'accordent; it is by singing that they achieve this result.  There are few people who, having been in a sea port, do not remember having heard along the quay sailors using songs full of harmony to help them in their work.  And in these songs the agreement between the parts, the relation between the thirds, the tonics, the falsettos and the basses are admirably combined.  The bold, rich motifs of some songs, full of harmony, furnish brilliant themes for an artist's imagination; the most astonishing thing in this aptitude most sailors have for singing with their strong, bitter, wild, and at the same time melancholy voices, is the ease with which they move from one musical mode to another.

Thus, almost all songs to do with ropes have an initial motif in a major key, and a response in the minor; the verse is sung by the sailor who has the most resonant voice; this one, as they say, leads, (donne la voix - gives voice) ; the minor, which is almost always a sort of ritornello, is sung in chorus by the other sailors; it is then taken up again in the major.  Not all have a good voice, but at least very few of them are incapable of joining in on the chorus, and none lack an ear.

It is from the Americans that these sailors songs came, which belong to the poetry of the sea.  This sometimes has a most gripping effect.  I remember stormy nights when the sounds of the wind threw ominous menace into the air, or ironic whistles in the rigging.  The waves rolled out grave melodies, the masts and the timbers shrieked and groaned under the efforts of the sails; sometimes one could hear above one's head sinister noises floating on the wind, without being able to link them to any idea, it sounded like the cries of shipwrecked sailors in distress.  Sometimes these were poor birds wailing whilst skimming the tops of the waves; this great world of nature enveloped in a sombre mantle, sometimes penetrated by curious lightning flashes, the rigging changed its grave notes according to the vibrations of the wind passing through them, and to all the sailors added their songs.  The wind carried them or mixed them with its high voices.  The sailor pays no heed, he sings, because he has to s'accorder; the sail obeys to the transmission of force that is put into its the voice of the sailor dominates the lull; when he hears himself at the centre of the menacing atmosphere, he is happy.

The words of the sailors' songs are not specially poetical.  There are of course, in dock-work, at the unloading of cargo, some verses of which the sense simply has the purpose of encouraging work; the promise of taking it easy at the tavern are the refrains with these free verses, often improvised to an adopted tune.  But most often the words are only monosyllables, of which the drawling consonants mingle with the notes of the song.  Many words in the English maritime vocabulary are fashionable in sea songs.  The word hourra, which is synonymous with courage, is often repeated.

In the French colonies, negroes have a marvellous facility for improvising in order to s'accorder through this sort of song.  The most trifling occurrence, the most fleeting impression will inspire a dozen verses, rhythmically poor and miserably rhymed undoubtedly, but marked with a certain causticity and a remarkably instinctive observation.  On the other hand the melody is less rich, it turns only around thirds; but that gives it a bolder aspect, more warlike perhaps.  Only in India are the songs of the black people richer in musical combination and present more motifs.

On board state vessels sailors never sing, and it is to the sound of the bosun's whistle that they s'accordent.

The Work of Captain Armand Hayet 1883 - 1968

Captain Armand Hayet (1883-1968) is the only deepwater officer to have taken an interest in any thorough way in the costumes and songs of French sailors; he devoted several books to them which are still used as reference works.  Other captains sometimes made allusion to this subject in their memoirs but without ever going into any detail.  This is regrettable, since the principal sources of information about English and Amerlcan sea songs are the collections published by the captains (Sailors' Songs and Shanties, J Davies, 1887; Sea songs and Shanties, W B Whall 1910...) or even the sailors: F T Bullen, J E Patterson, and above all Stan Hugill - whose adventurous life at sea was presented in Chasse-Maree (No 18) - who in 1961 published a remarkable encyclopaedic work entitled 'Shanties from the Seven Seas'.  An equally abundant collection could have been made in France if the literates on board had paid more attention to the oral culture of the sailors with whom they fraternised. 'Sea Songs' published by Armand Hayet in 1927, was an immediate success.  The work described in precise and vivid fashion the use of work songs and the atmosphere in which they were sung:
Get to it sailor! - To the windlass for the homeward trips.  The salty pleasantries, joyous allusions fly back and forth, and then one of the men starts to sing the first words of a capstan shanty.  The whole crew responds to this invitation, and it is a formidable choir that gaily punctuates the powerful march round the capstan.  The falsetto voices of the novices mix with the rough tones of the sailors; the bosun, ceding to the magic of the vigorous song, takes his place at one of the bars and, for once ridding his hard face of the lines which are always there, joins in with the immodest refrain with his coarse voice made for reprimands and threats.
Eight of the fourteen published songs in the collection had never before appeared in print: Valparaiso, Jean Francois de Nantes, Le Pere Lancelot, Le Pont de Morlaix, La Margot, La Boiteuse, Adieu Cher Camarade and Pigue la Baleine.  It is necessary to remain open-minded, however, as to the degree of authenticity of the songs collected by Hayet, who himself indicates the limits of his work:
Well before this date (1918), the text of the sea songs which make up this present collection had been definitively fixed by me.

For a long time I had, indeed, had to tone down many of Jack Tar's expressions which were too rough to be printed.  I had retreived, or restored as best I could, what could be considered the lesser of two evils, numerous verses lost for years, and had even completed certain songs which no longer had an ending, the last verses not having come through to us via the oral tradition, above all for the hoisting songs of which on modern sailing ships, no more than two or three verses were ever sung, this representing approximately the time necessary to finish hoisting and swing a topsail.

If we owe an immense recognition to Captain Hayet for having saved an essential part of our maritime heritage, his work, such as he presents it, must however be approached in a critical way.  It was certainly not as difficult as he asserts to collect songs from sailors in 1910, since almost 80 years later we are still collecting unpublished songs.  In another artlcle (revue Musica No.17, 1955) Hayet published a capstan shanty, La Carméline which he had not integrated into his work "never having been able to come to an agreement with the singers on a definitive version which seemed just about authentic".
Je croyais en m'embarquant
A bord de la Carméline
Faire un voyage d'agrément
De Bordeaux jusqu'à la Chine
Mais je me suis baisé à fond
Le barque n'est qu'une sapine
Mais je me suis baisé à fond
Le barque n'est qu'un ponton!

I believed when I went aboard
On board the Carmeline
I was going on a voyage of pleasure
From Bordeaux to China
But I dropped myself right in it
The ship was nothing but a sapine*
But I dropped myself right in it
The ship was nothing but a hulk!
* sapine: a makeshift coal barge drifted down the Loire to Nantes, then broken up and the wood sold.
The notion of "a definitive and authentic version" is quite foreign to the folk tradition, and it is a pity that the author did not think of publishing all the versions!

Jean-Rene Clergeau of Saint-Palais-sur-Mer recently passed on a variant heard in his youth:

J'ai mis mon sac sur la Caroline
Pour faire un voyage d'agrément
De Dunkerque jusqu'à la Chine
Mais le merchant d'hommes m'a foutu dedans
La barque n'est qu'une sapine
Qu'on a gréée en trois-mâts franc
Lard, fayots, c'est toute la cuisine
Et de l'acidulage pour vin blanc!

I put my bag on board the Caroline
To go on a voyage of pleasure
From Dunkirk to China
But this merchant of men dropped me in it
The ship is nothing but a sapine
They've fitted-out with three square-rigged masts
Bacon and beans was all they ever cooked
And acid stuff for white wine!
The other sea songs also come in numerous variants according to the fancy of the singers.  Captain Louis Lacroix noted in'The Last Great Sailing Ships' (1945) how he sang Jean-Francois de Nantes:
Jean-François dc Nantes
Marin de la Sémillante
Ne doit pas se priver de rien
C'est bon pour un terrien

Jean-Francois of Nantes
Sailor on the Semillante
Doesn't need to go without a thing
That'd suit a landsman
And even the famous hauling shanty Le Pont du Morlaix isn't always about Morlaix!
Passant la rue Saint-Honoré
Ah faye la loë, Ah faye la loë
Marie-Margot j'ai rencontrée
Ah faye la loë, Ah faye la loë
Je lui ai demandé à l'embrasser
Ah faye la loë, Ah faye la loë

As I roved down rue Saint-Honore
Ah faye la loe, Ah faye la loe
I met Marie-Margot
Ah faye la loe, Ah faye la loe
I asked if I could give her a kiss
Ah faye la loe, Ah faye la loe

(Jean Furet - 'Au Temps des Grandes Voiliers')
Moreover, A Hayet did not take into account the old songs sung on shore by the deepwater sailors.  They sang, of course, when they were on mad sprees at the inn, but the repertoire was not the same as the one on board ship:
All those who sailed regularly were generally Bretons.  Three quarters of them stayed in the large ports, Dunkirk, le Havre, Nantes; ah well, you know, they were still there when it was time to board again.  When they were there, it was fine as long as there was money, they went on the binge and lived at the inn, and there, indeed, nothing was too expensive for theM. They were there for a week or 10 days, depending, and then after a week they were left without a penny, as it says in an old song:

Au bout de cinq à six jours de noce
Jean le matelot voit le fond de sa poche
Il faut aller voir chez Ballu
Si il y a pas quelque chose en vue
Ballu lui dit j'ai ton affaire
Soit pour la Chine ou Buenos-Aires
Mais faut encore claquer cinq francs
Pour avoir un embarqurment

At the end of a five and six day binge
Jean Matelot saw the bottom of his pocket
I'll have to go to Ballu's
To see if there is anything going
Ballu said I have something for you
Either for China or Buenos-Aires
But you have to pay out five francs
To register on board

(As according to Captain Toucran, of Granville)
By repeating with a little too much confidence that all the sailors' songs were "saved", Armand Hayet perhaps put the brakes on any stray impulses to research at a time when they would have been fruitful.  french05.jpg - 9.2 KAlmost fifty years were to pass before people were to concern themselves again with his peremptory affirmations, and new collections would reveal aspects of maritime repertoire which had up until then been totally undiscovered.  The collecting done since has proven that all the Maritime circles - not only the deepwater sailors - had an abundant repertoire of songs.  It is not rare for them to contain a vocabulary, cliches, and technical details more sailor-like than the famous work songs of the Cape-Horners.  "Let fly the jib and haul in the weather braids" says a song of the Banks (of Newfoundland): The Newfoundlanders had their own sea songs:
Dans le doris les hommes s'en vont
Pour pécher toute la journée
Et quand il est plein de poisson
Faut encore le décharger
Hale dessus, c'est de la morue
Hale dedans, c'est du flétan

The men go down into the dories
To fish all day long
And when it is full of fish
We still have to unload
On the outside it's cod
On the inside it's halibut
But the sailors in the coasting track, sailors of the Royale, fishermen, not forgetting the ship's carpenters, the caulkers, the sailor's wives, the whole coastal population was singing sea songs marked by the professional stamp of the maritime world!
Marguerite au bord de La mer
A la pêche aux coquilles
Gai bon bon falira lalire
Elle en a déjà peché trois
Aperçoit un navire

Marguerite by the sea side
Picking shellfish
Gai bon bon faira lalire
She had already found three
When she saw a ship

The first recordings and recent collections:

The first recordings of French sailors were made by the Museum of Arts and Popular Traditions in the '40s and '50s of the Newfoundland fishermen and Cape Horners in Saint Malo, but they mostly remained unpublished.

In 1958 a record was made of the Congress of the Cape Horners in Saint Malo (Mouez-Breiz 39568).  Amongst others, two good chantymen can be heard on this, commanding officers Gautier and Aubin leading Jean-Francois de Nantes and The Ten Breton Sailors.

From 1970, the revival of field research led to the discovery of traditional singers with rich repertoires.  But whilst excellent recordings of shanties were made in England from before 1960, in France only two records take note of the research done in the maritime world.  Both of these are of Newfoundland fishermen.

'Chansons du Banc' (La Guedenne, GD003, 1976), by Jean Mahe, brings to light for the first time the worksongs Digging out the Salt Trenches interpreted by pelletas (men who dug these trenches) living on the banks of the River Rance:

Une pelle blanche
Une pelle avec son joli manche
Pelle en haut tu n'auras guère
Pelle en bas tu n'auras pas.

Connais-tu 'Hale ta patte'
Capitaine du Banquereau
Qui du matin au soir
Emmerde ses matelots

A white shovel
A shovel with its pretty handle
A shovel on high you'll hardly have
A shovel below you won't have

Do you know 'Hale ta patte'
The Grand Banks skipper
Who from morning to evening
Gives his sailors hell (lit.  'shits them up')

"When the boat was fishing on the banks of Newfoundland" explains Joe Klipfel of Saint Malo, "during the night sailors armed with wooden shovels dug a 'run', (that is to say, a trench) in the salt which was in the hold, so that they could lay in the first cod caught the next day."

To keep their spirits up in this laborious work on board their ship, which when riding at anchor rolled from side to side, they had in the course of time made up inspiring songs.  M. Herveic, of Cancale, notes that: "They were in groups of 12 to dig out the 'runs'.  There was one who sang and the others answered in chorus.  It was often the chief pelleta who led.  When they had finished, they dropped their shovels and had a drink.  They they started aft and worked forward"

Another record presents the repertoire of the Newfoundlanders of Pays de Caux, in Normandy: Newfoundland (CDM 74704, 1979) made by Michel Colleu.  One can hear on it several sailors rondes:

C'est to bateau de Louis Philippe
Il y a bien 7 ans qu'il est parti
Au bout de la septième annaie
Les vivres vinrent à nous manquer
Ah qu'il m'annue d'aller voir Marguerite
Ah que je regrette le temps passé

It's of the boat of Louis Philippe
A good seven years out of port
At the end of the seventh year
We began to lack provisions
Ah how I long to go and see Marguerite
Ah how I regret the time gone and past
"It was in winter when we danced circle dances", explains Delphin Lhomme, Newfoundlander from Fecamp.  "When the sailors came back, we sang Newfoundland songs: "On the banks of Newfoundland My True Love Waits for Me" and so on!  We all danced to the song, three steps to the left and three to the right.  When somebody did not know it, we said "Il traille" (an obscure vernacular word meaning "to pull the wrong way in a dance, to get out of step, to do everything arse-up'ards)."

In 1973, a group called Djiboudjep was founded in Lorient who, breaking with the affected style of choirs, very quickly achieved great success.  Apart from several airs collected by A Hayet, they sang a large number of adaptations - often far removed from the original - of shanties, also texts written by a young wholesale fishmerchant from Lorient, Michel Tonnerre, to melodies inspired by American folk songs.  The group thus spread a new repertoire, and are very popular on the coast.  But is it really necessary to look to Sailor Jack, the old enemy, for maritime inspiration Jean Matelot would not have had?

Without denying the interest of all these adaptations, pastiches, or new works, it must be said that too often their composers did not have sufficient knowledge of the traditional context; the texts often sound literary, certain songs from the capital even sound like folk caricatures.  Of course, all creation is positive, but it is regrettable that a lack of thoroughness in quoting sources has contributed to relegating the real sailors' songs to semi-obscurity.

french06.jpg - 48.0 K

From left to right in the picture: Front - (with the cigarette) Daniel, Theophile Cocher de Ploubay, Alphonse Jean de Pleboulle (officer of the watch), Louis Besret called 'Papa Louis' of Plurien, the vielle player M Balan called 'Tambour' of Plurien, 'Le Portugais', Ange Jamet de Pleboule (officer of the watch), protector of the ship's boy, Jean Leray of Ploubalay, in the boat Eugene Balan of Plurien (brother of the Vielle player).
Back - the two brothers Labbe: 'Le Gros' (fatty) and 'Le Petit' (titch) smoking a pipe, Francois Ploubalay a sailor from Plessy-Balisson, Jean Hayet de Saint-Michel-de Plelan, Joseph Rabardelle who crewed in the dory with Alphonse Jean.

It took almost five years to identify the sailors, and above all, the player of the vielle, who figures in this magnificent plate conserved in the Museum of Fishing in Concarneau.  After going to much trouble we found some of the sailors still living, and we even managed to get the vielle working.  They are the crew of the Leone, a three masted schooner from Granville - fitted out by Peret-Chouinard in 1922.  Captain Glatre was absent from the photo, which was taken on the river at Bordeaux whilst unloading.  The seamen staying on board are volunteers, mostly bachelors (the spree in the sailors quarters of Bordeaux had a reputation ...)

The vielle player who was nicknamed 'Tambour' was called Balan, and came from Plurien on the Cotes-du-Nord.  He built his vielle himself, copying the type sold by the watchmaker Cloteaux of Lamballe between 1880 and 1914.  This Lamballe model was made especially for the Bretons in the Pimpard workshops at Jenzat in Central France (note especially the depth of the body of the instrument).  M. Balan only made one vielle; his brother, who was not a sailor, made thirteen, and sold theM. Eugene, Balan's brother (in the dory) is still alive and plays the vielle himself.

'Tambour' took his vielle to Newfoundland every year.  He was also in the habit of playing in the brothels of Granville where they made him play, and he drank a lot.  On departure, in the dock, he sat himself astride the low yards, playing whilst the ship was still in view of the port.  When he got his vielle out again in Bordeaux, in a pub in the evening after unloading, all the joints unglued due to the salt.  His repertoire was made up of avant-deux, polkas, schottisches, mazurkas, violettes and songs like this march which the sailors sang when going on board:

Depuis 10 heures Cue noes marchons
C'est Matignon que nous cherchons
Bon bon nous voilà qui arrive
Gai gai nous arrivons
Nous ne partirons pas
Nous revenons la belle
Nous ne partirons pas
Les vents sort noroît!

For the ten hours we've been sailing
Matignon has been looking for us
Well well here we come
Gai gai here we are
We won't go away
We will come back my dear
We will not leave
The winds blow Nor West.

Sharing the fruits of research:

From 1979, on the initiative of Bernard Cadoret and Michel Colleu, all the field research was gathered together and a new type of working group was formed, making possible the publication of records entirely renewing the maritime repertoire and its interpretation.  The musicians who in 1981 recorded the first volume of the anthology of sea songs 'Chansons de Marins des Cotes de France' (SCM 001, 1981) came from greatly diiffering backgrounds, fishermen, journalist, ship's store manager, sailing school instructor, session musician and a luthier.

The record presents several unedited sea songs which Armand Hayet would not have disowned.  Thus the capstan shanty song collected by Bernard Cadoret and Jacques Guillet in 1978 from Monsieur Le Guenedal, Cape Horner from the Island of Arz, an extraordinary informant steeped in the knowledge of sailing.  He had himself learnt it from "an old man" with whom he had been on three voyages, Mimile Malet de Morlaix:

A Nantes, à Nantes vient d'arriver
Un beau trois-mâts chargé de blé
Au bras tribord d'arrière,
Brassons bien partout carré
Nous sommes plein vent arrière

In Nantes, in Nantes has just arrived
A beautiful three master loaded with corn
Man the mizzen starboard braces
Square all yards
We've a fair following wind
Direct contact with traditional singers has shown the richness and complexity of style of sailor's songs; one can't sing a ballad, a dance song and a work song in the same style.  In addition, each region has its own style of singing.  french07.jpg - 16.0 KKnowledge of regional styles and dances in use in maritime circles (rondes of three steps, laride ...) has progressed as a result of enquiry, marked by meeting with excellent singers with abundant repertoires (Messieurs Riqueur, Desjardin...  from Fecamp, Leon Gautier of Saint Malo, Marie Mandin from Noirmoutier, Monsieur Aoustin in Briere, Capt Vardesande from Dunkirk, in Concarneau ...  (We can't mention them all!)

There hasn't been the same situation for work songs, because no record exists of songs to manouvres on board the sailing ships, and the interpretations given today by elderly men have only an indicative value.  Based on the accounts of sailors, it has however been possible to index all the types of work songs in use in France and to obtain a number of details on the way of singing theM. Contrary to what Captain Hayet said, who only mentioned hauling and capstan shanties, they sang in many other situations: at the capstan, but equally at the brake-windlass ,haling ships in port, unloading ships, at the pumps, salt-shovelling in Newfoundland, long-haul, hand over hand, stamp and go ... So we see that quite often specific songs were used.

"To hoist the topgallants they sang to a rhythm which went with that work," explains Captain Vandesande, "a rhythm which was much quicker because a topgallant was hoisted with a stamp and go, but when they had to hoist a big sail, especially when the canvas was wet, well the lads had it harder, so the song was much slower."

In the course of numerous meetings in preparation of the volumes of 'Anthologies des Chants de Mer', the singers and musicians sought hard to try and analyse the basic rhythms of the work songs.  Listening to field-recordings was very valuable.  Witness this moving evocation of working the brakewindlass by Captain Frelaux of Saint-Jacut.

I worked at the windlass three times, in 1916, '17, and '18.  In Newfoundland at that time they still did not have the donkey engine.  You know we had a fine time, particularly when the weather was good.  Everyone stopped their work, including the salter who came up from the hold, even if there was cod, including the captain, everybody was at the windlass.  The novices stowed the chain.  It was a pumping movement, at each stroke they hauled almost nothing: one pawl, then the bar knocked on the deck, the windlass went tac, tac, tac, it was the pawls dropping.  When it was not too hard they sang, I remember.  There was a man from around Dinan, I can still see him, who led, and the others answered.  When there was a breeze, or even sometimes a storm and we had to bring in five or six links of chain, then they didn't sing any more, and everyone gave of his best to turn this chain and the anchor that was at the end.  
The knowledge acquired by John Wright from Stan Hugill, the comparison with specialists in manoevering great sailing ships, and listening attentively to the recordings of English and American shanties - several remarkable shantymen have been recorded since the '40s, like Richard Maitland - have enabled a reconstitution of the style with all the power and finesse which gives the worksongs their efficacity.

It became very rapidly evident, however, that the most simple and the truest way of recovering the art of the work song ...  was to do it in situ!  In 1983 some musicians preparing the third volume of the Anthology and members of the association Treizour went out on a lovely sunny day - without a breath of wind - in the chaloupe (a Douarnenez sardine lugger) 'Telenn Mor'.  They did not hoist the sails; they were there to pull on wood; and at each great karenn (oar) nine metres long, two oarsmen took their places.

It seemed extremely difficult to make any headway and to keep in time, as the oars were not all the same length - two are smaller and call for a more rapid tempo.  The team was quickly breathless with the effort.  A singer started up a rowing song:

Hale dessus ça viendra
Mon père est marchand de noix

Haul away she'll come
My father sells nuts
...  with no result - the rhythm did not seem to have any connection with the movement of the strokes.

John Wright, after having observed the motion of the rowers for some time started then to put a rhythm to the rowing by counting thus: "and one, two, and three, four"; the oar is in the water for the first two counts, with a strong impulsion on the second.  The off beats, marked by "and" serve first to put the oar in the water, then secondly to compensate for the flexing of a very long oar.  Two beats are necessary to bring back the oars without forcing.  Soon John tried to lead a song:

Hourra les filles à dix deniers
A dix deniers les fines en sont
Tirons les garçons sur les avirons

Hourra for the tenpenny girls
Tenpence the girls are going for
Pull boys on the oars
To the rhythm of the rowing song repeated in chorus, the rowers were able to keep in time and the lugger got up speed.  Soon all were taken by the atmosphere, the movements became more efficient and the chaloupe began to cleave the water.  One song followed another, The Bordeaux woman, My Father Sells Tobacco and above all The Three Sailors of Groix, which proved by far the best song for rowing in this type of Breton boat.  What else would you expect?

The return to Douarenez was an exceptional moment as much for the crew as for the bystanders at the end of the jetty who were to see passing a sardine boat returning at a lively speed, the whole crew singing with open throats, songs superbly adapted to the rhythm of rowing, and which resounded through the port.

A too little known aspect of French culture:

Even though nautical history, archaeology, and ethnology have enjoyed a veritable renaissance in our country in the last twelve years, the study of the oral culture of sailors, and notably of the songs, doesn't have the standing in France which it merits.  Whether it is to do with the museums, the researchers, or even the public at large, our country stays distant from the great current interest in the subject which exists, in particular in the English-speaking countries: in the United States all the great museums have integrated shanties into their programme of studies and regular activities since 1970.

Conferences gathering researchers, musicians and old traditional singers take place regularly in the vast museographic ensemble of Mystic Seaport, with the objectives:

...  to create an easygoing scholarly and musical forum for the easy exchange of songs, ideas and information among musicians, performers and the general public; and to present scholarship and the results of historical research about the songs, including oral history, field recordings, live performance, statistical and ethnological studies, historical and/or biographical studies.
(Stuart M Franck, director of the Kendall Whaling Museum, and himself a musician).
This regard for thoroughness does not exist at all in France, where sailors' songs are often still considered at best a pleasant pastime when they are not ignored altogether.

Even the 'Belem', a prestigious great sailing ship where many sea songs were sung, was the setting in the summer of 1985 for the regular concerts of 'sea songs' amongst which not one single traditional song figured! In general the knowledge of the old sailors is never given the place it deserves at great nautical events.

Whereas in Great Britain, the departure of a great transatlantic race is initiated by a singer of seasongs (Stan Hugill on this occasion) making thousands of spectators join in a hauling shanty.

Where do we go from here?

There are still many songs remaining to be found in archives (collections which have stayed as manuscripts, notebooks of memories), by pouring through the maritime novels of the 19th century, and indeed recording the repertoire of the old sailors, sea fishermen, coastal sailors, Newfoundlanders, as well as the few deep water sailors who are still alive.  How many readers can count in their family or amongst their neighbours an old sailor whose memory harbours, amongst stories of life at sea, some songs from his youth? Collection, even belated, modest or individual, always has some lovely surprises in store ...

In remaking contact with this constant tradition, perhaps today's pleasure-boat enthusiasts will recover a little of the maritime personality which it is about to lose.  Didn't the regatta-goers in Nantes at the end of the 19th century already have their own repertoire, always up to date?

...Avant qu'on appareille Vidons une bouteille Puis hisse la toile et foutons le camp Pour aller voir Gueule de Serpent!

.....Before we get under way Let's empty a bottle Then hoist the canvas and shove off To go and see 'Gueule de Serpent'

(Gueule de Serpent - lit.  snake's maw - an almost legendary inn-keeper on the river Loire who always had eels and other delicacies even out of season).
Above: The crew of the three masted vessel "Alice" at the beginning of the century

Bibliography and discography:

Besides the written works and records mentioned in this article, we should mention the collections of Fernand Gueriff, Chansons, romances et poemes des anciens de la voile (1972) and by Chasse-Maree, Cahier de chansons de marins (1983), as well as the five volumes of l'Anthologie des chants de mer by Chasse-Maree.  A list of various groups and singers of sailors' songs, French and foreign, is available: write to Chasse-Maree.

Above: An engraving illustrating the text of Gabriel de la Landelle on sailor's ring dances (1844)

Michel Colleu

Article MT097

This article first appeared in the French magazine 'Chasse Maree' and is reproduced with the author's permission. Translation by Janet Russell and Paul Wright to whom many thanks.

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