Paul Clayton,
Whaling & Sailing Songs
from the Days of Moby Dick

(Tradition/Empire, 1956/2005)

Note: This CD was also reissued in 2009 by Legacy International with a different cover and slightly different title, Sailing & Whaling Songs of the 19th Century.

This re-release of a 1956 recording by Paul Clayton (a third-generation resident of New Bedford, Massachusetts, and a man of sailing and whaling forebears) is characterized by very lean production in the audio, with Clayton's voice and guitar sufficing to tell the sea stories shared herein. The accompanying booklet is lush in counterpoint, with great set notes detailing the pedigree of most of the chosen songs (when known). As a bonus, the cover art replicates the original, with an Ahab looking uncannily like Gregory Peck resolutely grasping his trusty harpoon.

The set opener is "Maid of Amsterdam," a standard rendered with brio and an interesting rallantando at the close. It is followed by the equally strong "Old Stormalong," a rarely covered capstan shanty. A couple of songs further into the voyage, the drag shanty "Paddy Doyle's Boots" is driven by some fine lower-register guitar work by Clayton. It is followed by the fo'c's'le standard, "Spanish Ladies," and the heaving-up song, "Sally Brown," both framed well by Clayton's vocals and guitar.

The seldom heard lament, "A Dying Sailor to His Shipmates," is next, followed by one of the highlights of the set, the halyard shanty "Ranzo" (a chief inspiration for the whimsical "The Saga of Reuben Clamzo & His Strange Daughter in the Key of A" essayed some years later by Arlo Guthrie). An alternate melody for "Mermaid" (Childe Ballad #289) follows, and that in turn is followed by the highlight of the disc, an especially strong rendering of the plaintive halyard shanty "Johnny's Gone to Hilo." A second fo'c's'le song, "Saturday Night at Sea," is next, and this piece gives way to the standard capstan shanty "Shenandoah" (presented with an off-standard melody).

"Admiral Benbow," one of two story-songs in the set, is the next offering; it leads to the short-drag shanty "Round the Corner," which yields in turn to the foc's'le classic "Greenland Whale Fisheries." The next three tunes are particularly strong: a stirring rendition of the halyard shanty "Go Down You Blood Red Roses" gives way to the oft-performed "Turkish Revelee" (Childe #286, a.k.a. "Golden Vanity" or "Lowlands Low"), which in turn yields to a particularly beefy read of the short-drag shanty about Napoleon, "Boney Was a Warrior."

Clayton offers up a different view of one of the most tragic episodes in sailing history, the disappearance of Franklin and his men on an ill-fated voyage seeking the Northwest Passage in 1845, in "Lady Franklin's Lament" (known also as "Sailor's Dream"). The closing song of this diverse set is a properly dark reading of the enduring capstan shanty "Santy Anna," completing the homage to diminutive demogogues of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

This is a fitting place to close out the voyage, though it left me wondering if there were not another disc out there somewhere in which Clayton could continue to spin his nautical yarns. Sadly, the answer is only yes for those who continue to venerate vinyl, where there are copies of a disc on Folkways and one on Elektra that continue the seabound stories (with other tales of the larger folk idiom). In the meantime, this is a worthy addition to any collection of sailing sagas.

by Gilbert Head
17 June 2006

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