various artists,
Classic Maritime Music
(Smithsonian Folkways, 2004)

In a very happy move Smithsonian Folkways has taken to plumbing its deep catalogue for a series of "Classic" anthologies of American roots music. The previous five are variously focused on Southern styles: blues, bluegrass and mountain music. In the sixth of the series, SF turns to a non-Southern genre that has passed into neglect in recent years: songs of salt- and freshwater sailors. These are not field recordings, but the work largely of revival singers, who include such familiar names as Dave Van Ronk, Paul Clayton and Lead Belly, along with others not so well known. They are taken from albums released between 1951 and 1997.

This is, as one would expect, a satisfying collection, not just for the performances but for the usual well-informed annotations and documentation. This grizzled folk fan learned a few things I didn't know, such as that "Run, Come See Jerusalem" -- once a folk-scare standard, done nicely here by the X-Seamen's Institute -- was written in 1929 by Blind Blake. No, not that Blind Blake, the bluesman/songster from Florida whose first name was Arthur, but the Bahamian singer Blind Blake, born Blake Higgs. I also learned that "Hilo" in the song "Johnny's Gone to Hilo" (here "Tommy's Gone to Hilo") is not in Hawaii, but in Peru (the port city of Ilo).

A small number of performances don't move me much. Tom Wisner's original, all-too-well-intentioned "Chesapeake Born" strikes me as purely cornball in that distinctively gooey Pete Seeger sort of way. Alan Mills and the Shanty Men perform in what sounds, at least to my ear, in so stilted, theatrical a fashion as to remind the listener why sea shanteys are so often parodied and ridiculed. (Admittedly, they're here for all of :36, in a mercifully brief "Paddy Doyle's Boots.") Done right, shanteys are wonderfully affecting, and most of the singers here do them proud. There are also a few ocean-going ballads, the standards "Greenland Whale Fisheries," "The Sloop John B," "Lord Franklin" and "The Handsome Cabin Boy," whose subjects range from the wryly comic to the heartbreakingly tragic.

If you already love this sort of thing, you'll want this album. And if you're looking for one representative anthology of maritime folk music to fill a hole in your collection, this one will do just fine.

music review by
Jerome Clark

10 January 2015

Review first published in 2004;
reprinted by permission.

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new