Article MT134 - Part 4

What Happened to the Work Songs

Some say the railways killed English folksong.  Some say it was education; some say the industrial revolution.  And others, this is God's truth, say the folk songs were "not altered by environment, but by a fundamental change in the outlook of the people themselves, arising from the attainment of a particular stage in their development" (Cecil Sharp: English Folksong, Some conclusions). How, you may well ask, do people reach a stage in development, without a change in circumstances?  How does their outlook alter, except as their social environment alters?  The experts are dumb.  Perhaps they think these changes just come over the people for no special reason like a flock of pigeons off the top of Nelson's cocked hat.

No doubt there are plenty of reasons for the regression - observe I do not say disappearance - of folksongs; and it would seem that some of these reasons are psychological and some are physical and both kinds affect each other.  The chief reason, and the one from which all other reasons branch, is the change in society itself.  There are no two ways about it; what we quickest recognise as folksong is the product of a social system that has come to an end.  Social customs, social ideas have altered now; there is your psychological reason.  Physical things have altered too, and the coming of the railways is surely one thing which has caused the old kind of song to die away; modern transport gives people access to amusements and diversions they did not have in the days when country labourers had only two or three ideas about livening a dull evening, and one of them was by making up and singing songs round the kitchen fire.  Even the installation first of gaslight, later of electric light, in villages and isolated farms has done something to dry up the source of many songs, for nowadays there is no ground for the kind of economy which brought country neighbours together round the one candle, and this was a great stimulus to the making up of songs in former times.  But more serious than the development of railways and the installation of gasmeters, more deadly than the invention of the phonograph and the radio and the daily delivery of newspapers, is the development of industrial technique and the alteration or disappearance of jobs which formerly were accompanied by singing.  And on top of this, the growth of industrial noise is something that has done a great deal to kill the oldstyle folksong.

Most commonly people blame mechanical music, the gramophone or the radio, and that does turn many singers into listeners, true, and the news service of radio and press makes all those songs unnecessary which once used to spread information about the latest battle, murder, or who-slept-with-who.  But folk-music was already on the way out before the appearance of the gramophone about 1900 or the radio about 1920; so that cannot be the whole reason or anything like it.  What we know for sure is this: many folksongs were closely related to a certain stage of technical development, and as modern times changed all that, the songs no longer applied.  Most jobs have been revolutionised in the last 150 years.  A change in the way of living destroys a folk-song quicker than anything else and a little quick progress and a little bad luck has destroyed whole categories of songs in a single decade.  Girls used to sit and sing to the whir of the spinning wheel.  Nowadays the rhythm and tempo of that kind of work has quite altered, and the old spinning songs do not fit any more; and if a Bradford mill hand did fancy singing then she would have her work cut out trying to hear her own voice above the clatter of machinery.  In any case, any radio-amplified "Music-while-you-Work" tune fits better into her life than songs like :

She pressed herself against the wall,
Line, twine, the willow and the dee,
And there she has her two babes born
With a tweedle, fcweedle twine-O.

She took a penknife long and sharp,
Line, twine, the willow and the dee,
And pressed it through their tender heart,
With a tweedle, tweedle twine-O.

She dug a grave by the light of the sun
Line, twine, the willow and the dee,
And buried them under a marble stone
With a tweedle, tweedle twine-O.

So when she went straightway to church,
Line, twine, the willow and the dee,
She seen two sweet babes in the porch
With a tweedle, tweedle twine-O.

So when she went to her father's hall,
Line, twine, the willow and the dee,
She seen two sweet babes playing at ball,
With a tweedle, tweedle twine-O.

Babes, ah babes, I wish you was mine,
Line, twine, the willow and the dee,
I'd dress you up in the silk so fine
With a tweedle, tweedle twine-O. 
Mother, oh mother, we once was thine,
Line, twine, the willow and the dee,
You did not dress us in the silk so fine
With a tweedle, tweedle twine-O.

You dug a grave by the light of the sun,
Line, twine, the willow and the dee,
And buried us under a marble stone,
With a tweedle, tweedle twine-O.

When the sails of the windmill turned to some professional purpose there were many songs about millers, and millers' daughters especially, and they are as well known as any.  But now the farm worker no longer brings his wheat to the mill as grain and takes it away as flour, for his wife to bake into bread.

What happens now is the farmer sells his corn to a big miller's agent, as like as not over the telephone, and buys his bread from the machine bakers in the nearest town, whose motorvan comes round the villages daily.  So the miller and the miller's daughter are no longer something special in the working life and the social life of the countryside.  There is quite a chance the miller is an , obscure and wealthy gentleman with pinstripe trousers and a City office, and whatever his daughter may do, if he has a daughter, she is not likely to do it in the same circumstances as was once conventional for millers' daughters, if the songs are anything to go by, for many of the old mill songs are like this one from the Northeast:

The young man and the miller's lass they set out on the hill,
Hey, with a gay and a grinding O. 
They took a sack of corn and they went to grind the mill.
And the mill turns about with a grinding O.

The young man barred the door and the maiden she did sigh,
Hey, with a gay and a grinding O. 
And then it came into her head that with him she would lie,
And the mill turns about with a grinding O.

She has cast off her petticoat and so she has her gown,
Hey, with a gay and a grinding O. 
And all upon the running corn she straightway did lay down.
And the mill turns about with a grinding O.

So up then starts the young man and run from mill to town,
Hey, with a gay and a grinding O. 
And there he spied the miller all a-walking up and down.
And the mill turns about with a grinding O.

O I have served you seven long year and never sought a fee,
Hey, with a gay and a grinding O. 
And I will serve you seven more if you'll keep your lass from me.
And the mill turns about with a grinding O.

This song ran well to the rhythm of the milling; but the business has altered now, technically and socially, and to the extent that such songs are right out.

Much the same thing goes for a great deal of agricultural work.  Once, reaping songs were common in England, whose rhythm fitted perfectly the movement of the sickle.  Such songs do not go at all to the clatter of the modern mechanical combine harvester .which will reap the crop, thresh the grain, bag the wheat, and even sew the sacks if you like, and all you need is a man to drive the tractor and another to look after the combine, and they have no special rhythm to work to; for them also, any Bing Crosby or Vera Lynn song fits their work as well as, or better than, the good old ones.

It is not only the industrial and technical advances which have strangled these songs.  The whole social thing that they reflect no longer obtains.  Once, and specially in the 18th century, the ploughman was, on his professional standing, as good as any and better than most, and more often than not he would be the cock of the village walk.  He was proud of his skill and proud of his muscle and if he did not make as much money as the tradesmen and craftsmen he reckoned himself none the less more of a man than they, and he would sing:

The mason's a man that is proud of his post;
If it wasn't for him we'd have died of the frost. 
And the tailor's a man makes an old coat like new;
But he's not half the man that follows the plough.

To judge by the songs and a great deal of other evidence too, there was a tradition which demanded that the ploughman be an independent character and a great hand with the girls.  More than any other kind of workers except the seamen, the ploughman always seemed to have women after him, and certainly for himself and not for his money.  There are many plough songs like:

When I go to church a-Sunday
Many a pretty lass I see,
Primly sitting by her father's side,
And winking over the pews at me. 
O I can drink and not be drunk,
And I can fight and not go down,
And I can woo another man's lass,
And still be welcome to my own.

And this estimation is not his own merely, for there are enough girls' songs about ploughmen as lovers to fill a fat book:

My love's a ploughboy and follows the plough,
I promised him it and I'll keep it true,
I promised him it and I'll never rue
The loving of my ploughing boy.

Then it's Oh oh oh, and its lovely oh,
To hear him shout Hup, hi, and whoa,
And make his furrow straight to go,
What's better than a plough boy?

I might have the miller from yonder mill,
But the smell of the dust would have done me ill.
I might have the gardener of yonder tree,
But the smell of the thyme would have sickened me.

When I walk out and go to the stack,
I hear his whip give the other crack.
My very heart is like to break
For the loving of my ploughing boy.

When I walk out and go to the barn,
I see the plough give the other turn.
My very heart is like to burn
For the loving of my ploughing boy.

Oh I'll take off my greenest gown,
And I'll take off my smock of brown.
On a bed of straw we will lie down,
And there I'll hug my ploughing boy.

Then it's Oh oh oh, and its lovely oh,
To hear him shout Hup, hi and whoa,
And make his furrow straight to go
What's better than a plough boy?

There have been many changes since the day that that was sung, and nowadays whatever he may think himself to be, and whatever he may be in reality, to most people in the villages and out of them an agricultural worker is just one of the lower paid of Britain's proletariat, and if anybody says anything flattering about him it is usually in the terms of the past.  More often than not the ploughman is more used to handling a petrol tin than a horse-whip, and certainly he will know more about the Labour Exchange than the hiring fair.  And though there are many good folksongs about hiring fairs, I have yet to hear one about the Labour Exchange.

For the best part of five hundred years farm servants all over England were, as a rule, hired at the fairs.  Where there was no fair, they went from farm to farm and asked for work.  The employers preferred it that way, arguing that fairs "unsettled the servants and inclined them to change their situations." Certainly they did tend to level the country workers' wages.  The best place to see a hiring fair was at Polesworth in Leicestershire.  Every September 27th farm servants packed the roads into town from 30 miles away.  For most of the 18th century there would be some 3,000 labourers at every Polesworth fair.  Often they would come with badges; the carter with his butterfly knot of whipcord on his hat, the cowman with a lock of cowhair hanging from his brim, the milkmaid with a cow's tail tassel on her breast, the ploughman with his nosegay pinned to his coat.

As a rule the workers employed on the farms all the year round came from the village itself, but the workers wanted for seasonal jobs, for the ploughing, harvesting, carting, were hired at the fairs.  Their contract would ordinarily be for the whole time of harvest and their time of employment would usually be written as: "till the song of harvest be over."

On fair-day every farm servant in the district reckoned himself to be free for the day, and by every account a good time was had by all.  The crowds round the gambling tables were noisy and those round the drinking booths noisier still, and noisiest of all were the farm girls, dancing through the fair with linked arms, a dozen abreast, and pulled in all directions.  The professional cripples and inspirers of horror would line the tracks of the fairground wagging stumps, displaying sores, trundling along in bowls when they had nothing left to walk with, holding out their caps in their mouths when they had nothing left to hold with, and above their appeals would rise the voices of the blind ballad-singers shouting their highpitched ornamental recitals of crime and bawdiness and dissafection.  "The fears of prudent employers," says the author of Rural Economy in the Midlands in 1796, "is directed to the troops of balladsingers, who disseminate sentiments of dissipation in minds which should have been bred in principles of industry and sobriety." Popular songs were held to have much influence in forming the morality of the agricultural population, and it was pointed out by many that if, instead of the rubbish dinned into them whenever they came together at the fairs, farm servants heard songs in praise of conjugal happiness and the benefits of an industrious temperament, "the most beneficent results might be anticipated." Beneficent to whom?  That was never explained.  By and large, the employers, especially at the end of the 18th century, were against the "Statutes" as the fairs were called, partly because they meant the interrupting of work for some days each year "and a distaste for labour lasting a considerable time longer, and that in most parts at a time when work was pressing"; and mainly, and this was an objection they kept to themselves, because the fairs gave farm servants the chance to study the labour market and to bargain for fairer wages.

Many of the songs from the hiring fair days, and perhaps the most of them from the early 19th century, are about poor food, bad treatment, broken promises.  Some farmers were good masters and some were bad, and in times when work was plentiful the bad ones would have to go to fairs where they were not well known and there they would put a smiling face on it and try to take on strangers for their work.  And once the labourers were hired by a bad farmer, they had only one thing to look forward to and that was "term time" when their contract expired:

There's some that sing of the hiring fair
And sound out an alarm,
But the best old song that ever was sung
It is about the term.
The term time is drawing near
When we will all win free,
And with the hungry farmers
Again will never fee.

With broadtail coats and Quaker hats,
And whips below their arms,
They'll hawk and call the country round,
A-seeking for their farms,
And they'll go on some twenty mile,
Where people doesn't know 'em,
And there they'll hire their harvest hands,
And bring them far from home.

They'll tip you on the shoulder
And ask if you're to fee
They'll tell you a fine story
That's every word a lie;
They'll tell you a fine story
And get you to perform
But, lads, when you are under them
It's like a raging storm.

Stock raising is another thing which has altered, and now you get intensive sheep farming in smallish fenced meadows where nobody is needed to watch the flock all the time, so the shepherd is a rare figure and the shepherd's songs, and God knows there were enough of them once, are nowadays rarer even than the shepherds.  Where you still find him, the shepherd does not live the old lonely life he used, which was without a doubt what encouraged him to make up his songs.

In general the coming of industrialisation and the substitution of machine labour for hand labour meant that the songs died away very quickly.  Certainly this happened to the greatest body of English worksongs and the widest known, the old shanties of the sailing ship days.  I say "old" shanties, though in fact the most of the worksongs, as opposed to the playsongs or foc'sle shanties, are quite modern as folksongs go, and probably came into circulation between 1816 and 1860.  The shanties are very well known and I do not need to illustrate them here, nor describe them fully, for most people know just what they sounded like, and if they do not, there are plenty of books about them and radio choirs are always singing them in their own quaint way.  But what is not so well known is the background of these songs, and there are so many false ideas about the industry to which they were the musical accompaniment, that it is worth our while devoting a bit of time to considering it.

The business of shanty singing is a very old business.  Brother Felix Fabri of Ulm, on one of the pilgrim ships running in the shuttle service between Venice and Palestine in the 1480's heard the "mariners sing when work is going on because when at sea it is very heavy and only carried on by a concert between one who sings and orders and the labourers who sing in response." And long before that, somewhere between the third and fifth centuries, the seamen in Daphnis and Chloe did "that which other Marriners used to do to elude, the tediousnesse of labour; these began, and held on, as they rowed along.  There was one among them, that was the Celeustes, or the Hortator to ply, and he had certain nautic odes, or seasongs; the rest like a chorus all together strained their throats to a loud holla, and catched his voice at certain intervals." That all sounds much like what went on aboard the sailing ships in the first half of the 19th century.  The sentimental seasongs like Lowlands Away and Spanish Ladies are very old songs.  They were sung in the foc'sle in the hours off watch and were not meant for worksongs.  Indeed, aboard men-o'-war, for several hundred years all work was carried out in silence.  Orders were given to the pipe of the bo'sun's whistle.  And many ships which nowadays would be reckoned merchant ships were then on a man-o'-war footing.  The working shanties really grew with the merchant service proper and that is why most of them are no older than the 19th century.  The breaking of the East India Company's monopoly in 1814 started off the shanties as we know them now, and the coming, of the screw steamers sounded their death knell.  They had a short life, and, it must be said, a hard one, and though there is a lot of sentimental nonsense about them and the ships they were sung in, what they mostly reflect is as wasteful a way of working and as inhuman and anachronistic a set of labour relations, as you will find anywhere in man's modern history.

Working shanties were of two kinds; hauling shanties and capstan shanties.  Hauling shanties were sung for setting the sails, and capstan shanties were sung for capstan work just as you would expect, that is for weighing anchor, for pulling a ship in to the wharf side, and also for pumping.  If you have half an ear you can easily tell them apart by the shape of the tunes.  Pushing the capstan round was a continuous thing, so you get a long tune and a variety of rhythm like in Shenandoah or Johnny come down to Hilo. Hauling on the ropes was an intermittent thing, so you get shorter tunes and a regular rhythm, like in Reuben Ranzo or Haul away, Joe.

We have charming accounts of the manliness and dignity of toil aboard the sailing ships, and of the beauty of the ships themselves, written by half a hundred famous writers who have made their reputation by that sort of thing, and indeed some of these writers worked so hard that to this day the Cutty Sark is the symbol of something clean and fine and adventurous to many city clerks and middle-aged citizens who have led limited lives.  And can we not furnish the reader with a few rational and entertaining facts about the reality, not the myth, of sailing ships?  I hope so.

From 1831 on, the Maritime Courts were always busy with cases of bad conditions, violent treatment, even murder of men by officers, to say nothing of murder of officers by men, though only one case in a hundred ever came into the courts, and it is no surprise to find that sailors did not sing Rule Britannia nor Heart of Oak nor any of the drawing room songs of sea life like Ben Backstay and those other preposterous ditties that were so popular a century and a half ago, but rather they would commonly sing on their last spell at the pumps before they came ashore:

I thought I heard, the old man say,
Leave her, Johnny, leave her! 

You can go ashore and draw your pay,
Its time for us to leave her!

The winds were foul, the work was hard,
From Liverpool Docks to the Brooklyn Yard.

She would neither steer nor stay,
She shipped it green both night and day.

She shipped it green and made us curse,
The mate is a devil and the old man worse.

The winds were foul, the ship was slow,
The grub was bad, the wages low.

We'll sing, oh, may we never be
Leave her, Johnny, leave her! 

On a hungry bitch the like of she,
Its time for us to leave her!

In the foc'sle after work, many songs were sung which were not directly seasongs, but ordinary country songs or popular songs, and just as you might expect the favourites were the sentimental and nostalgic songs of home.  They did not sing about the rolling main, the foaming billows and such; these are the brandmarks of the landsman-made song.  But sometimes they did, even in the foc'sle, sing hardship songs, and some writers have thought these hardship songs were burlesques and have claimed to find them funny, though the Enquiry Court evidence shows that ballads like Andrew Rose are not really burlesques at all, and there is little that is comic about them unless some people have a different idea from mine of what is comic.

Andrew Rose, the British sailor, now to you his woes I'll name,
Twas on the passage from Barbadoes whilst on board of the Martha Jane,
Wasn't that most cruel usage,
Without a friend to interpose? 
How they whipped and mangled, gagged and strangled,
The British sailor, Andrew Rose.

Twas on the quarter deck they laid him, gagged him with an iron bar;
Wasn't that most cruel usage to put upon a poor sailor?

Twas up aloft the captain sent him, naked beneath the 'burning sun,
Whilst the mate did follow after, lashing him till the blood did run.

The captain gave him stuff to swallow, stuff to you I will not name,
And the crew got sick with horror, all on board of the Martha Jane. 

Twas in a watercask they put him; seven long days they kept him there. 
When loud for mercy Rose did venture, the captain swore no man should care.
Wasn't that most cruel usage,
Without a friend to interpose?
How they whipped and mangled, gagged and strangled,
The British sailor, Andrew Rose.

What Joanna Colcord calls "probably the most famous of the old packet-ship shanties" is the hauling shanty "Blow the Man Down", "blow" here meaning "knock":

It was on a Black Baller I first served my time,
To me way-ay, blow the man down! 

And on that Black Baller I wasted my prime. 
Give us some time to blow the man down.

Tis when a Black Baller is clear of the land,
The bo'son first gives us the word of command.

"Lay aft" is the cry, "to the break of the poop,
Or I'll help you along with the toe of my boot."

Then larboard and starboard on deck you will sprawl,
For Kicking Jack Williams commands that Black Ball.

As I was a-walking down Paradise Street
A brassbound policeman I happened to meet.

Says he: "You're a Black Bailer by the cut of your hair,
I know you're a Black Bailer by the clothes that you wear."

"O policeman, policeman, you do me great wrong.
I'm a Flying Fish sailor just home from Hong Kong.

They gave me three months in Liverpool Town,
To me way-ay, blow the man down! 
For kicking this policeman and blowing him down,
Give us some time to blow the man down.

It seems the ships of the Black Ball line were hard to work in and wages were low, and many desperate characters worked aboard them.  One song says "You'll seldom find sailors aboard a Black Ball." The police were hard on all seamen and specially hard on Black Ball men, and trouble between these crews and the law was a very common thing.

Most of the shanties we know, including the famous American ones, like Shenandoah, Johnny Come Down to Hilo, Santy Anna and the Hog-Eye Man, belong to the early part of the 19th century.

Between 1618 and 1810 there was no change to speak of in British merchant ships, neither in design of the ships, nor in organisation of labour aboard them, nor in development of the industry itself, and this backwardness was due in the main to the monopoly system which prevailed.  There were colonies, true, and commerce with them was carried on by chartered companies against which other traders were forbidden to compete; and the heaviest dead hand on British shipping was the East India Company.  They had things so much to themselves that they could not lose, and as they saw it, why should they alter their working ways?  The East Indiaman was never a commercial vessel.  She was heavily armed, and heavily manned with a fighting crew, and few of them were seamen.  She was fully fitted to take on anybody who should dispute her passage or muscle in on the Company's territory, but though she was doing a commercial job, she was a non-commercial vessel, like most of the so-called merchant ships of the time.

Revolution altered all that; the American Revolution.  When the Americans won political independence they set out to compete; and everything was in their favour : the initiative of a pioneer people, a freedom from outworn tradition, a parliament unhindered by obsolete laws, a wealth of natural resources for building fine ships.  In 50 years they did more to develop sailing ships than Britain had done in three hundred.

Early in the 19th century most British ships engaged in the Atlantic trade were about 250 tons.  In the 25 years from the end of the Napoleonic wars to 1840, the Americans had built for the Western Ocean a fleet of softwood packet-ships of a size which went up steadily from 500 to 1,200 tons register, well built, and, unlike the British ships, well handled.  The myth that British merchant seamanship was good at this time is indeed a myth, for half the crews were farmers' boys and bankrupt tailors and slum-rats on the run from the law; their pay was poor; the master mariner was often little more than an ignorant leading-hand.  Aboard the American ships, on the other hand, the pay was three times that of the British and the officers were mostly grammar school boys with good examinations behind them, and keen to do well in an up-and-coming industry.

When the great days of Free Trade came in the 1850's, everything changed fast.  All the power of the old monopolies went, and the conception of the merchant navy as primarily a naval reserve went too, and the British shipowner was held up to the full blast of foreign competition.  Now the big private companies were set on their feet and tile fortunes of the great lines were laid for, and just at this critical time in shipping history gold was discovered in Australia and a great torrent of migrants flowed to the Antipodes.  The Liverpool merchants, freed from the restrictions of the Navigation Laws, got the crack American builders like Donald McKay to build giant sailing ships of over 2,000 tons and faster than anything seen up to then in Britain.  These were the great shanty days, the days when the big Liverpool Black Ballers monopolised the Australia trade, while the newfangled steamships were impotent, unable to handle the long stretch between Durban and Fremantle without refuelling.

The big new sailing ships were harder to handle and more dangerous to manoeuvre than the old-timers, and a generation of seamen were bred on the run out by the Cape and home by the Horn, that was something very different from the collection of dumb farm boys and runaway miners and ticket-of-leave men who till then had made up the most of the Merchant Navy.  When steam finally established itself, the owners found that they had at their disposal a body of able officers and self-reliant seamen.  And whatever the sentimentalists may say, our good modern sea tradition only dates from the 1850's, from the days of competition between sail and steam, when what the shanties represented was already going out.

It never was a fair fight.  The steamships were the certain winner; by the 1860's there was no shadow of doubt about that.  But what happened then was something curious and something that is much misunderstood.  For just as the Pacific Steam Navigation Company was fitting the new and revolutionary Elders engines into their ships, the famous yards like Steele's of Greenock and Hood's of Aberdeen were building the almost legendary tea clippers that bring tears of emotion to many whom a ride in a tramcar would make seasick, the Ariel, the Thermopylae, the Cutty Sark.  These were the clippers that raced the Americans off the seas and captured the carriage of the Chinese teacrop from Foochow to London.  These were the ships that were whooped to the skies; the ships that many think of the moment they hear a shanty, on the radio.  And when you come to look at it, you may well wonder what all the shouting was about.  For the Americans were busy with the Civil War and its aftermath; the tea trade was never of any size; and the ships themselves, the lovely ships, were all stillborn.  Steele and Hood should have known better, should have been building iron ships, not wooden ones; they should not have been building clippers at all.  For while Steele's were building the Ariel, there in the rival yard next door, Scott's were building the first Holt ships, with new compound engines.  The fastest clippers, the Cutty Sark and Thermopylae were taking 90 days to run from Foochow to London in good weather; much longer in bad.  The new Holt ships, the Agamemnon, the Ajax, the Achilles, were covering the distance in ease and comfort, good weather or bad, in 65 days.  The clippers were already a back number.  Their way of working was out-of-date.  The shanty days were over.  Now you did not work sail, you stoked a coal furnace; you did not turn a capstan or windlass, you drove a winch which did it for you.  And on top of it all, one man did the work of six.  A number of sailing ships lingered on, but all the old fight had gone from them, and anyone who .had the misfortune to work aboard them for a living and not for fun knew them for what they were, dirty, uneconomical and primitive instruments that belonged to a past age.  The steam ships were bad enough where accommodation and food standards were concerned and the exploitation of seamen by many employers was something fierce, and yet compared with the old sailing ships they were vessels of paradise, and nobody in the seafaring business really regretted the passing of the bad old times you find reflected in the sea shanties.

For slightly different reasons, the whaling songs disappeared just about the same time as the shanties.  Up to the 1820's, most of the English whalers were fishing the Greenland grounds and most of the whaling songs are about these grounds.  Many of them give us a good idea of what the job was like then and what it entailed:

They signed us weary whalermen
For the icy Greenland grounds. 
They said we'd take a score of sperm
While we was outward hound, brave boys,
While we was outward bound.

The lookout in the crosstrees stood
With his spyglass in his hand. 
"There's a whale, there's a whale, there's a whale!" he cried,
"And she blows at every span."

The captain stood on the quarterdeck,
And the ice hung on his eye. 
"Overhaul, overhaul, let your davit tackles fall,
And launch your boats for sea."

Now the boats were launched and the men aboard,
And the whale was full in view. 
Resolved, resolved was each whalerman bold
To steer where the whaleflsh blew.

We struck the whale and the line paid out.
But she gave a flurry with her tail:
The boat capsized, four whalermen were drowned,
And we never caught that whale.

The winter star did then appear
And the boys did anchor weigh. 
Twas time, twas time to leave the grounds,
And homeward bear away.

Ah, Greenland is a dreadful place,
And a land that's never green,
Where the ice and the snow and the sperm whales blow,
And the daylight's seldom seen, brave boys,
And the daylight's seldom seen.

By 1830 the Greenland grounds were pretty well fished out, there were only four English ships working there, and all the rest had moved on to the vast sperm grounds of Baffin's Bay and the Davis Straits.  The Greenland grounds had been fished from Hull, London, Whitby, Newcastle, Berwick, Grimsby, Liverpool and Kings Lynn; these were the ports the whalermen went from.  But in 1830 Hull was sending to the Davis Straits grounds 33 whalers out of England's total of 41, and that year the great disaster came, and 20 fine ships were lost when the ice caught them and crushed them all in Melville Bay.  The industry never really recovered.  The owners would take no more risks.  By 1849 there were only 14 British whalers at work, and they were like hoboes wandering all over the oceans, from the Arctic to the grounds off Hawaii and Peru and down to Diego Ramirez, Cape Horn.  Conditions aboard these ships were very bad; the ordinary merchant ships were rough enough in all conscience but they were nothing like the whaling vessels, and regular seamen would not work aboard these if they could help it; the crews were made up of all the malcontents of the waterfront, men with a grudge against everything, men wanted by the police and by nobody much else.  That is why the well known shanty says "Reuben Ranzo was no sailor, so he shipped aboard a whaler." For the work aboard these vessels, we have songs like the fine Coast of Peru and perhaps best known of all, Blow Ye Winds, which is claimed, like so many 19th century sea-songs, by both British and Americans as their own:

They've advertised for whalermen, five hundred brave and true,
To fish for sperm on the whaling grounds of Chile and Peru. 
Blow ye winds in the morning, and blow ye winds high-o! 
Clear away your running gear and blow ye winds high-o!

Its now we are at sea, my boys, the wind comes on to blow;
One half the watch is sick on deck, the other half below.

But as for the provisions, we don't get half enough;
A little bit of stinking beef and a little bag of duff.

Then there's the running rigging, which you're supposed to know;
It's "Lay aloft, you son of a whore, or overboard you go!"

The cooper's at the vice bench, a-making iron poles,
The mate's upon the mainhatch, a-blasting all our souls,
The skipper's on the quarterdeck, a-squinting at the sails,
When up aloft the lookout sights a bloody school of whales.

"Now clear away them boats, my boys, and after him we'll travel
But if you get too near his fluke, he'll flip you to the devil."
Then our waist-boat got down and we made a good start. 
"Lay on me now, you bleeders, for I'm hell for a long dart."

Then the harpoon it struck and the whale sped away,
But whatever he done, boys, he give us fair play. 
Now we got him turned up, and we towed him alongside,
And we over with our blubberhooks and rob him of his hide.

Now the bo'sun overside the lift-tackle do haul,
And the mate there in the mainchains so loudly he do bawl. 
Next comes the stowing down, boys, to take both night and day.
"You'll all have a tanner apiece, my boys, on the hundred and ninetieth lay."

Now we're all bound into Tumbez, that blasted whaling port;
And if you run away, my boys, you surely will get caught.
Now we're bound for Talcahuano, all in our manly power,
Where the skipper can buy a whorehouse for half a barrel of flour.

When we get home, our ship fast, and we get through our sailing,
A winding glass around we'll pass, and to hell with blubber whaling!

So blow ye winds in the morning, and blow ye winds high-o! 
Clear away your running gear and blow ye winds high-o!

In 1868, Svend Foyn, up in the Lapland fjords, went after finnwhales with a harpoon gun for the first time.  He got 38 whales in a single season to the admiration of the whole world.  And from then on, the whaling business was big business, rationalised, highly technical, impressively organised.  Nobody bothered much about the spermwhales any more.  They were all head and the head was all bone and they took a long time to work.  up for only an average return of oil.  Now the whalermen went for bigger stuff, for the finnwhales and blue whales that run up to 90ft.  and over, and which nobody had dared to touch with a hand harpoon, and as it happened the big stuff was quicker to work and so the mechanised industry had the advantage on all counts.  The hand harpoon went, and the sails went and nothing at all remained of the old industry except perhaps the heel spikes on the whalermen's boots.  Nowadays aboard the floating whale factories in the Antarctic the same songs are sung as you hear in any factory ashore, the same songs and no others.  Somehow the whalermen never seem to make songs that went to a 12-hour shift among the 150-ton winches, the steam saws, and the big Hartmann pressure-cookers of a modern whaler.  I have heard whalermen singing at work on deck and after work down in the foc'sle, but on top or down below I never heard them sing much else but Boohoo, you've got me crying for you.

There is no end to the occupational songs we have lost because the occupations have altered out of recognition.  Some of these songs sprang from the rhythm of the work, and some from the description of it; and some are merely onamatopoeic recitals inspired by the noise made, or the names of the tools, or even the names of the different phases of the job itself, and this is specially the case with tile tinkers' songs and the songs of the harvesters.  When the sickle reaper disappeared, not only did the songs which went with his arm go, but other popular songs died at the same time which pictured the reapers' image, and described his work, and even stylised the sound of the sickle as in those songs with refrains like Whiss a raw a rue a raw, Whiss a raw a rue a ray.

There is a great deal I have not touched in this book, for instance, soldiers' and sailors' songs; there is something so special about these and the reason for their fluctuation from heroism to disaffection, that they really need dealing with in a separate work.  The same with the cries of hawkers, too, which once filled the city streets with music and which were finally killed by the department stores, by Woolworths, and most of all, perhaps, by the noise of traffic which was too heavy in competition.  Their study is a special thing and they have to be left out of this book, and so do all the beggars' songs and the prison songs and the mad songs about Bedlam, and many of these are very beautiful indeed, and the peculiar Irish-character songs of the Navigation, of the building of the canals in the late 18th century, and the deserters' songs and, alas, the nursery rhymes which are something particularly interesting to look into and full of surprises.

And what else should this book contain?  Some say things are changed and we will not have folksongs any more.  They are the pessimists.  And some try to revive traditional music that has nothing to do with social life any longer; and all that happens is they give you a recital of the popular songs of the past; and they try to make a living thing of it.  They are the optimists.  But that is not the whole story.  Things do change, and they change again; and just because at this moment we have no great body of fine folksong that is bound close to our social life and the times we live in and the way we go about our work, that is not to say there never will be any more.  It may be we shall have to wait till society is so altered that there is no longer any special distinction or variance between the composer and the rest of his fellowmen, till cultured music and popular music have become one and the same.  And that is just the sort of thing we can confidently look forward to, if ever we have a society all of a piece, one where men can be what they are, and think and feel and sing as they do, without reference to class or colour or creed or any of the other things which mean that one man's culture is another man's caviare or dope or downright poison.


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