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Blow, Boys, Blow (1925) Some Old Sea Chanteys. And Their Singers. (By "Araunah.")
It is upwards of twenty year ago, but I can hear the thin, high, reedy pipe of old Tom Jones as
clearly as if he had lifted it but a moment since above the shrilling of the wind in the shrouds.
I can see his mahogany-coloured old face lifted, and the Adam's apple in his skinny old throat
working up and down like a cork in a cataract. One skinny talon would be tense about the halliards
above the lead-block, the other poised in air ready for a long, strong pull when the refrain of his
chantey made the demand.
At that time Tom Jones must have been in his late sixties (he had been in the same company for
forty-odd years, and in the same full-rigged ship for upwards of thirty), and be was the finest
example of a thoroughly pickled man I have ever met. As much of him as had escaped pickling
in salt water, and the briny product of the harness casks had been expertly pickled in alcohol,
all the strange and potent varieties of alcohol, to be found in all the seven seas, and the ports
thereof. His hide would have made admirable wear-resisting sole-leather, but his voice remained
the voice of the chanteyman. A high, resonant tenor it was, cracked a trifle, perhaps, but of an
I have heard it in a pampero off the Plate; in a Cape Stiff (Cape Horn) buster; in a Western Ocean
blizzard; and in a doldrums calm in which hundreds of square yards of canvas slatted and banged,
spars creaked and complained, and chain "ties" growled and moaned. But never have I heard it conquered
by the elements: always it ripped and tore and screamed its way over labouring backs and into
suffering ears: always it brought the obedient response of perfect unanimity in labour.
For that is the function of the deep-sea chantey: it is no manner of use twenty men pulling on a rope
unless they all pull together. To use a military analogy (Jones would turn in his watery grave at the
thought: the gravest deep-sea insult is to call a man an adjectival soldier, the implication being that
his back is straight where it should be supple as whalebone): to use then a military analogy, the refrain
of a chantey is to the verse of it what the executive part of a word if command is to the cautionary word.
Or, to be more exact still, certain verbally italicized words in the refrain are the signal of united effort.
The chanteyman sings "Blow, my lads, for I long to hear you," and his audience responds,
"BLOW. boys. BLOW !"
Each of these vociferated "blows" is accompanied by a mighty drag at the rope.
These chanteys (pronounced "shanties") are widely dissimilar in tune and rhythm and treatment, but two
things they have in common. Very nearly all deal with amorous adventure in a more or less roundabout way,
and all without exception are unprintable in full. For your true wind-jammer sailor there was no sex problem:
he was an elemental being, and sex was an elemental thing. Hence, honest soul, he saw no earthly (or heavenly)
reason for treating it in other than elemental terms.
He sang of it unashamedly, and many of his lyrics were anatomical. Marine conceptions of anatomy are wonderful--
and unprintable. He was given to confusing the anatomy of a woman with the anatomy of a ship, and to lyrical and
entirely frank discussion of both in the same chantey. The result was, to put it mildly, unscientific.
Two merits these chanteys unquestionably and nearly all of them were tuneful, and all of them were necessarily
and essentially rhythmic. In these things their record surpassed that of the folk songs of terra forma which are
infinitely better known. But even had any of them been printable in extenso, a chronicler would have been stumped
at the outset by the fact that no two chantymen ever sang the same chantey in the same way, indeed it might almost
be said that no chanteyman ever sang the same chantey twice in the same way. Like the gipsy and the troubador,
the chanteyman was a born improvisator, and after the first two or three stereotyped verses, which a rigid
convention obliged him to observe, he commonly gave his somewhat lurid imagination a free rein. Lines must rhyme:
there was no versy libre convention on the high seas in those days, but a weak rhyme might pass, and even assonance
A typical chantey opened:--
As I was a-walking down Ratcliffe Highway.
To my Wey, hey BLOW the man DOWN
A sweet pretty creature I chanced to spy
Chorus: Give us some TIME to BLOW the man down.
It is apparent here that assonance chiefly depends on a Cockney accent. The atmosphere of Ratcliffe Highway lends
credence to the assumption that the original bard possessed one. Then, of course, we proceed to nautical metaphor:--
Ho, Back your main tops'l, I loudly did hail.
To my WEY hey, BLOW the man DOWN.
"Come brail up your courses and take in plain sail."
GIVE us some TIME to BLOW the man down.
Whereupon, of course, the pretty little craft obediently hove to, and amorous adventures ensued at the discretion of the
singer. Frequently the melodious recital would be truncated, by the cry "Belay there!" and the tale never brought to its
conclusion; an artistic anticlimax that never embarrassed the Chanteyman in the least. Next time he would tell it all
differently. In between these verses here came a chorus that was responsible for far more hard work than were the
All together: BLOW the man up, Bullies,
BLOW him right DOWN
To my Wey, hey, BLOW the man DOWN
Oh, BLOW him up here and then
BLOW him round TOWN
GIVE us some TIME to BLOW the man DOWN.
Since the words in capitals represent pulls on the halliards on gantline, it will be seen that the chorus effected more
than the verse. The chivalry of the American toward his womenfolk seems to have struck down to the stratum of the
wind-jammer sailor very eariy, in theory at least. It was noteworthy that the few non-sexual chanteys sung in British
fo'c'sles were nearly all of American origin; generally of Southern American origin. One of the best of these began:--
Oh, away down south where I was born,
ROLL the COTTON DOWN
There was waving flax and fine green corn.
ROLL the COTTON down.
Now the only Southern States Americans, practically, that went down to the sea in ships, were negroes born on plantations.
Indifferent sailors they made, but superb chanteymen whose vast deep voices rolled over the water more melodiously, I fancy,
than that of my old, pickled, but unconquerable friend, Tom Jones of London and the Seven Sees.
But here, perhaps, I do my countrymen a wrong. One chantey there was of great antiquity that had nothing whatever to do with
sea, and the fact that it originated in the days of the Press gangs points to its indubitably British origin. It was a wildly
hilarious and mordantly ruthless satire on an unfortunate tailor whom the dread gangs had pitchforked nolens volens into a
nauticalncareer. His miseries thereafter formed the theme of a devilish epic, wherein he relieved his tortured days endlessly.
Your wind-jammer sailor is not given to maudlin sympathy with the afflicted (except, perhaps, in his cups), and his limitless
scorn for the inefficient is matched only by the vitriolic bitterness of his comment. So this unfortunate tailor (sufficiently
handicapped already by his calling and his unfortunate patronymic) became immortalised, amid repeated, bursts of Homeric laughter,
as the archetype of inefficiency. The chantey, begins:--
Chanteyman: Ranzo was a tailor.
Chorus RANZO, boys, RANZO.
Chanteyman: He tried to make a sailor.
Chorus: RANZO, boys, RANZO.
And so one follows the unfortunate being through episode after unhappy episode of his tortured career. One learns how he tried to
coil a rope left-handed; how he tried to go aloft; what the bosun and the second mate and the mate and the "old man." said to him;
the withering scorn of that despised individual, the cook; and even the unchecked insolence of the "boy." Ranzo, one may presume,
is long dead, but his serio-comical woes go on for ever. Decidedly not comical to him though: some versions conclude with a suicide.
A highly interesting specimen of bardology and the power and persistence of oral tradition.
One other chantey comes to my mind that has no relation to sex, but it is strictly utilitarian. When, off Cape Stiff, or in some other
inclement clime, all hands turned out to fight grim battles with ice-encrusted canvas; when they had fought through, dark aeons of time
on a swaying foot-rope a hundred feet above a coldly menacing sea; when tons of blue black water had swept them a score of times off
their feet, battering their frozen limbs against unyielding bulwarks; when wrists were chafed raw by leather bound, salt-encrusted,
ice-fringed oil-skins: then old Tom Jones would lift up his cracked old tenor and chant pleadingly:--
Whisky is the life of man.
I'll drink whisky whisky I while I can,
WHISky FOR my JOHNny.
The second verse always began quite shamelessly:--
I thought I heard the "Old Man" say.
"Stewart, fetch that big brass tray.
Chorus (enthusiastically) :
With WHISky FOR my JOHNny !"
It generally came off, and the command "Belay all that !" would be followed by the cheerful cry "Grog-oh !" And prohibition
propagandists notwithstanding, that grog (generally rum, not whisky) was amazingly grateful and comforting.
A different type of chantey altogether was that sung when walking round a capstan. Here the effort is not spasmodic, but steady and
continuous, so that these capstan chanteys are more truly songs, often admirably sung as part songs. Since in most vessels the most protracted effort round a capstan was needed when heaving up anchor, nearly all these chanteys are songs of farewell and anticipation. One of the most tuneful has as its refrain:--
Away, Rio, Away Rio,
So fare thee well, my pretty young gel,
For we're bound for Rio Grande.
Another, which bears its date of origin very obviously in every line, runs:--
Blow, boys, blow, for California.
For there's plenty of cold, so I've been told
On the banks of Sacramento.
But the best of all is "Rolling Home." In it is real poetry, and dignity, and wist: all the heart-constricting yearning of the perennial
exile for the dear home land. The time has real real melody and I imagine the whole thing to be relatively modern. Here and there it is a
little spoiled by clumsy attempts at magniloquence:--
Call all hands to man the capstan,
See your cable runs all clear
When our ship has weighed her anchor
For old England's shores we'll steer.
Rolling home, rolling home, rolling home across the sea.
Rolling home to Merry England ; rolling home, dear land, to thee.
References follow to "California's lovely daughters." and so forth, but the rising tide of melody is that full-throated chorus is touching,
particularly when one is young, and has been scouring the ends of the earth for a couple of years away from all one holds dearest. There
used to be a fine old custom in the nitrate ports of Chile, whence every vessel is homeward bound, of cheering every parting vessel and
making that nostalgic hymn of departure an anthem in which fifty ships' crews joined. And the Southern Cross was hoisted at the yard-arm.
.... But that, perhaps, may be a story for another day. Notes
From the Perth Newspaper the West Australian 8 Sep 1925 p. 9.
australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory