Bob Walser,
Outward Bound on the J.M Carpenter
(Old & New Tradition, 2010)

On this engaging and accomplished CD, Minneapolis folklorist Bob Walser revives 16 sea shanties obscure or, if familiar, unusual. Not, in other words, another go at "Haul Away, Joe," "Santy Anno" or "Shenandoah" -- not that there's anything wrong with those sturdy warhorses, of course. The selections on Outward Bound on the J.M Carpenter are drawn from the so-far-unpublished collection of folksong scholar James Madison Carpenter, transcribed (by Walser) from in-the-field Dictaphone cylinder recordings of American, Canadian and (mostly) British seamen between 1929 and 1935. The songs themselves date from the mid- to latter 19th century.

Though I am no more than a moderately informed fan of the genre, I have been listening to, and sporadically reading about, shanties for a very long time, and I've never encountered the likes of "I Joined a Ship to Make a Trip," "Allie Go Day," "Down in Those Valleys" and more. Some of the melodies, however, are associated with Irish and English traditional ballads I do recognize. Walser sings most of these unaccompanied, the rest with button accordion, backed by two groups of harmony singers. Stylistically, he honors the tradition while rendering the material in a vocal style that is polished without being loftily, gratingly inauthentic. That's because there's a whole lot more conversational tone than art-song bombast in his approach. Occasionally, when necessary to fill out a text, he adds a verse or two of his own creation, though not so's you'd notice. Nothing wrong with that, either.

Overall, Walser's recording will remind you of the sort of revival-generated album that Folkways issued in the middle decades of the last century. (For a retrospective on that sound as applied to ocean-going folk songs, I recommend the anthology Classic Maritime Music from Smithsonian Folkways, 2004. Amazingly, the contents of this and Outward Bound do not overlap at all.) The sound quality, owing in good part to the good taste and studio expertise of co-producer Dakota Dave Hull, is rich and warm. (OK, Dave is an old friend of mine, but it's true anyway.)

Considering how hard and dangerous the life of the sailor was, one has to marvel at the humor -- as often as not bawdy, at times surreal -- so exuberantly in evidence in shanties, which also are among the most tuneful of work songs. It's easy to forget that this stellar song-making took place amid circumstances nobody today would wish any part of. On the other hand, I suppose that can be said of a whole lot of other traditional music.

For the listener at a comfortable distance from their origins, though, the songs are undiluted pleasure. One is surprised at how familiar titles ("Hilo, Johnny, Hilo," "Ranzo") yield wholly unexpected lyrics and melodies. "Saucy Anna" is, I surmise, a cousin to the better known "Rosy Anna." Most who have paid attention to shanties will have heard one variant or another of "Hoist Her Up from Down Below," but they won't know, as I learn here in Walser's brief but informative notes, that it was "made aboard the Gilroy in 1887."

New albums of shanties, especially ones that haven't been covered heretofore, are rare indeed. Outward Bound's appearance is surely one to celebrate.

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music review by
Jerome Clark

18 September 2010

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