Maritime


WHERE ARE ALL THE MARITIME SONGS?

© Warren Fahey
Note: From Signals. 2001 magazine of National Maritime Museum

COLLECTING FOLKLORE is a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. You get a line of a song here and another there and you keep putting the lines and verses together until they start to form a more complete song. I spent my earlier years tracking down the old bush songs and ballads. Now, searching for Australia’s maritime folklore, I have had to start at the beginning and, sadly, far too late. Over the past 50 years our entertainment patterns have changed dramatically. People growing up before television arrived entertained each other, but now we have become a nation of people who get entertained. Music in general has become a more disposable, incidental item in our lives. It bombards us just about everywhere we go, where it used to have an important role as a storyteller and, more importantly, as a traditional record of the signposts in a nation’s history.

Singing songs, along with telling stories and dancing, has always been a favourite pastime and songs can also be powerful emotional tools. We associate songs with events in our life and while they cannot be looked at for historical accuracy, songs are certainly fascinating time capsules. And they’re an important part of our national heritage.

In the area of maritime folklore we have a small number of songs that concern early shipwrecks, sailors on shore leave, life on board, shanties and, of course, major events. Shipwrecks, like most tragedies, attract public sympathy and songwriters. But considering the number of shipwrecks scattered around Australia it is surprising that we have so few songs about such tragedies. The wreck of the Yongala off the Queensland coast resulted in at least two songs, of which only fragments remain.

There were parting words and kisses, there were promises so gay,
As the Yongala left Flat Top on that fatal summer’s day;

Hearts that beat with joy and pleasure at the thought of sailing home,
One and all were bright and happy as they sped across the foam.

A version sung to me by Mr Cyril Duncan, Brisbane, in 1973 went:

And now they ‘ve all gone a-searching,
For survivors or ones they could find,
But at last came the news ‘We’re returning,’
The storm had left none behind.

The songs about sailors range from sentimental ballads to bawdy pub songs. Some have been borrowed from other trades such as shearering. A slight change of the words and the songs suited the sailors very nicely. There were, of course, those songs that sailors everywhere have sung for years and years like ‘Maggie May’ and ‘Blow the Man Down’. Once again, however, these are also scarce. We don’t fare much better with shanties either and this is really surprising considering the massive number of sailing ships that travelled out to Australia in the 19th century.

This isn’t to say that they weren’t sung, but simply that they weren’t recorded very effectively. In my book Diggers Songs I attempted to document the many songs that Australians sung in the 11 wars they have fought in (12 now, if we include East Timor) and I also included all manner of songs from our Navy. Most of them, like the army songs, tell of the bad food, lousy conditions and tough officers. In this collection I also published

songs from the popular musical hall and songbooks like Why Can’t We Have a Navy of our Own?, and the songs that we composed to welcome the US Great White Fleet in 1908.

In the mid-1970s I tape-recorded the life story of Jimmy Cargill, who had the distinction of having raised the alarm when the Japanese midget submarine got caught in the Sydney Harbour boom net in 1942. Jimmy, a Scot by birth, had spent his early years as a whaler and throughout his recordings I managed to cajole several songs and shanties out of the depths of his 80-plus years of memory. Jimmy had a wonderful voice and the more we talked the more songs he recalled. One of his gems was a backroom song called ‘Maids of Australia’ that tells of the first amorous encounter between an Aboriginal woman and a sailor. Whatever our feelings about this bawdy ballad, it is a rare and important social document. This is the only time this ballad has been recorded in Australia. It was recorded once in England where the first line went: One day as I walked by those Oxborough banks… When Jimmy sang it for me, the puzzle of where the Oxborough river might be was solved:

One day when I walked by those Hawkesbury banks,
Where the maids of Australia they play their wild pranks,
‘Neath a palm-shaded tree 1 sat myself down,
To observe those young damsels as they gathered around,
On the banks of my native Australia…
Where the girls are both handsome and gay.

       [SIGNALS 56 September – November 2001]

One of the ways I collect the old songs is by asking magazine readers for contributions, as I did in 1999 with the monthly Sydney Afloat. To my surprise five different people sent me verses from one comic song, ‘He Played His Ukulele As The Ship Went Down’, composed by Arthur Ie Clerq in the 1930s. Its importance to me was that every single person who wrote to me had different verses! This popular song had entered the oral tradition and people had composed new words. Sometimes this is the result of having forgotten the original words, but in this case all who responded to my request had gathered the verses from different sources. Mr J D O’Connell of Oatley, NSW, knew it as ‘The Nancy Lee’ and recalled two opening verses:

I sing you a tale of the Nancy Lee
A ship that got shipwrecked at sea
The bravest man was Captain Brown
Who played his ukulele as the ship went down.

The Captain’s wife was on the ship
‘e thought she ‘d like the trip
She could swim – so she wouldn ‘t drown
So they tied her to the anchor as the ship went down.

Peter Thornton from the NSW south coast said he used to sing the following quite different verse when he was a young tacker:

Now the Captain’s wife, she couldn ‘t swim
And that wasn ‘t any good to him
And he ‘d promised her she would not drown
So he tied her to the anchor as the ship went down.

The wife appears in another variant sent by Rob Willis of Forbes:

The Captain’s wife was on the ship,
And he was glad she made the trip,
As she couldn’t swim. She might not drown,
So he tied her to the anchor as the ship went down.

They sprung a leak just after dark
And through the hole came a hungry shark
Bit the Skipper near the water-mark
he played his ukulele as the ship went down.

Tim Armytage of Cheltenham wrote: ‘In 1968, when I was 18,1 was at a party where I heard a 78 rpm recording of this shanty. I was so taken by its ludicrous lyrics and rollicking melody that I played it over and over until eventually the record was wrestled from my grasp and other music put on the phonograph.’ Because the disc was broken Tim has been searching for the lyrics for the past 32 years! He did remember the following:

The owner wireless ‘d to the crew,
Do the best that you can do.
She’s only insured for half a crown
So I’ll be out of pocket if the ship goes down.

These examples show how the folklore jigsaw puzzle comes together and just how important the occasional verse or even single line can be in putting the whole song back together. Another popular song from our maritime history was a sentimental ballad called ‘The Sailor’s Lament’ which is also sometimes known as ‘The Maiden’s Prayer’. Mr V J Williams of Dora Creek says he learned the song in 1947 while serving in the RAN. It is an important find for me because previously-collected versions never had the ‘sailor’ reference.

The Sailor’s Lament

A man came to his home one night,
To find his house without a light…
He went up to his daughter’s room,
There he found her hanging from a beam,
He took a knife and he cut her down,
And on her breast this note he found.

My love is for a sailor boy,
Who sails far out upon the sea,
I often write and think of him,
He never writes or thinks of me.

My apron strings they used to meet,
I used to tie them in a bow,
But now my apron strings won’t meet,
Around my waist they will not go.

Oh father I cannot stand the shame,
To bear this child without a name,
So dig my grave both wide and deep,
And place white lilies at my feet.

They dug her grave both wide and deep,
And placed white lilies at her head and feet,
And on her breast they placed a dove,
To signify she dies for love.

So all ye maidens bear in mind,
A sailor’s love is hard to find,
And if you find one good and true,
Don’t change the old love for a new,

Hopefully this article will prompt a few Signals readers to search their memory banks. I am interested in any song, parody or ditty and even anonymous poems that tell of Australia’s maritime past. Here are a few suggestions to get your brains ticking: songs about life on board ship, shanties, love songs, songs about shipwrecks, songs about particular ships, songs about certain members of the crew, ditties about yachting (yesterday and today), songs about boat building, songs about lighthouses, docks or marinas. Navy songs, bawdy ditties, sentimental ballads, songs about the tall ships, ditties about sailors ashore, drinking songs, story songs, riverboat songs (now where are these?). I am also interested in maritime drinking toasts and anything else for that matter! Well, that’s for starters!

© Warren Fahey
Note: From Signals. 2001 magazine of National Maritime Museum