Ewan MacColl & A.L. Lloyd,
Blow Boys Blow: Songs of the Sea
(Tradition, 1957; Empire Musicwerks, 2006)

We have here another offering from Empire Musicwerks in their selective reworking of the old Tradition Records catalogue of seminal folk music. In A.L. Lloyd and Ewan MacColl, we have two interpreters of traditional music at the top of their game, accompanied throughout by the skilled instrumentalist (and eventual landmark musicologist) Ralphy Rinzler.

The disc opens with the forebitter/capstan shanty "Row, Bullies, Row," weaving the vocals with Rinzler's spirited guitar work. It is followed by the energized bunting shanty "Paddy Doyle," rendered in a cracking uptempo a cappella by Lloyd and MacColl. The a cappella halyard standard "Wild Goose Shanty" is next, with "While Cruising Round Yarmouth," an old ballad collected by Harry Cox, propelled by guitar and mandolin, closing the first set.

An exceptionally rapid halyard shanty for voice alone, "Old Billy Riley," opens a second set, followed by an unusual version of the ballad "Handsome Cabin Boy," in which the gender-bending title character emerges as the captain's wife. This gives way to the mandolin-driven capstan shanty "South Australia," which in turn yields to the title track "Blow, Boys, Blow," an a cappella topsail shanty dating to the old African slaver runs.

Next up is my favorite tune, a version of the quick-time capstan shanty "Whup Jamboree," which is fiercely paced by Rinzler's frailing banjo. The tempo slows considerably for the plaintive ballad "Banks of Newfoundland," a melody rooted firmly by the accordion accompaniment. There follows the wishful "Whiskey Johnny," a halyard shanty sung in hopes of a dram to ease the burden of heavy hauling. The Mediterranean strains of "Do Me Ama" are next, a ballad in which the servant wins what the squire may not have.

In the standard "Jack Tar," the perils of a sailor loose on shore with pay are explored; oddly enough, warnings agains the wiles of women figure prominently in this banjo-driven ditty. Another shore-bound ballad, "Paddy West," sings of the propietor of a Liverpool boarding house and his unorthodox school for seamen. The disc closes with the oldest of the tunes, the timeless short-line shanty "Haul on the Bowline" (which dates to the era of Henry VIII), and the a cappella halyard shanty "A Hundred Years Ago," a song long associated with the port of Baltimore, but one known equally by British and American clipper rounders.

Here, then, is a taste of salt, sea, shore and a life abovedecks and in the rigging. It speaks of an age nearly lost, and captures a moment in which the hard life of the sea is leavened by a stirring tune and a closely held sense of humor. I recommend the disc highly to all who yearn for the age of sail and sailors.

by Gilbert Head
30 December 2006

British musicologists Ewan MacColl and A.L. Lloyd performed a great service in helping to ensure that the old folk music has not been forgotten. This album, one of many they released together or individually over the years, focuses on sailing songs.

There isn't a great deal of art to the music -- MacColl and Lloyd both have rough-hewn voices, and the arrangements here are sparse. Of course, that makes them all the more true to form, something akin to what you might have heard on a ship in the days when, as the liner notes indicate, "ships were moved by white canvas, hemp rope and brute force."

The 16 tracks included here are, the liner adds, "songs from the days when a skipper would forecast his arrival-date partly by the weather and partly by the heart his deck-hands put into their singing."

Songs include "Row Bullies Row," "Wild Goose Shanty," "Old Billy Riley," "The Handsome Cabin Boy," "The Banks of Newfoundland," "Paddy West" and more. MacColl and Lloyd are the singers, sounding all the world like old jack tars singing the songs of their youth; they're joined here by Steve Benbow on guitar, Alf Edwards on concertina and Ralph Rinzler on guitar, banjo and mandolin.

First released in the late 1950s, this album fortunately has been reissued a few times over the years, keeping it in circulation for new generations. I'm very glad I have a copy to enjoy.

by Tom Knapp
12 December 2015