It’s hard to move as fast as the internet. For a glorious few days last week, the internet was taken by storm by a revival of sea shanties and the subsequent public bemusement and pedantic corrections (eg. the Wellerman isn’t a shanty per se because it’s not intended as a work song). As I listened to the familiar lines, I was full of various and conflicting emotions. My first one was a prideful possessiveness: here were all these “Leave Her Johnny Leave Her”-come-latelies. Did they even Stan Rogers? But then I realized that was the absolute worst, and not who I wanted to be. What I want is for everyone to enjoy these great old songs like I do, and for people to discover and recover just how much fun it is to sing singable songs: alone, in the car, on Tik-Tok and some day (God willing) together again.
Monday is Robert Burns birthday. In other years, that would mean tonight would be spent in my kilt and tam, dragging my plaid-covered Scottish song book and preparing to endite poetry memorized 30 years ago, when memorization came easily. We’d usually start the night with Burns (“My Love is Like a Red Red Rose” and “Address to a Haggis”) before going to vaguely Celtic (“The Parting Glass” and “Early One Morning”) and then moving on to whatever we could sing or recite (a capella renditions of “Some Nights” by Fun). But the absolute highlight of the night, often sung two or three times (which I also snuck into my host-friends wedding) was “Barrett’s Privateers“. Not a shanty, but a sea song like Wellerman – sung by the same dude. This is also one of the few songs my sons have learned to sing.
The great joy of the singalong is the verse/chorus format. The more interplay there is between them, the more the crowd can join in after the first round or two. Barrett’s Privateers is particularly fun because there is a lot of interjection and plenty of verses. Plus fewer things are more cathartic than belting out “God damn them all, I was told…..!!!” at the top of your voice.
So in case you would like to join in the sea shanty*, fun to sing along songs, here are a few of my favorites:
1) Barrett’s Privateers: Stan Rogers
The very best of the singalongs for large, rowdy groups. Try to have at least one person who has the verses written out for a call and response. And never look at a bowl of eggs the same way again. Just what ARE the staggers and jags?
2) Mary Ellen Carter: Stan Rogers
On the same album, this song about the resurrection of of a sunken ship, given up on by the owners. It’s a triumph of the little guy over the heedless, soulless bosses, and the relationship between a worker and the tools, which is so much more than a simple cost benefit. To my deep surprise, this song was one my pastor chose to have sung at his retirement celebration.
3) The Wild Rover: The High Kings
There are a bunch of good version of this song, but I like the harmonies on the High Kings version. The funnest part is by far the clap in the chorus. Makes you feel like you’re part of the in-crew when you can totally nail the claps, and gives you a chance to good naturedly laugh at the new person who adds the extra clap!
4) The Scotsman: Seamus Kennedy
Another classic with many versions. It’s a tremendous accomplishment to roll off a ringdingdiddlio or two. This version is nice and clear so you can hear exactly what he’s saying, which was incredibly scandalous to 12 year old Brenda when I first heard it at a party after the Highland Games sung by a man named Sterling.
5) The Tarriers Song: Chad Mitchell Trio
Another fun, fast chorus on this one, with gorgeous three part harmony by the Chad Mitchell Trio. Like so many of the songs in this genre, it makes you grateful for a desk job. It’s short, but a fun chorus.
6) Greenback Dollar: Kingston Trio
In the version of this song we had on tape when I was a girl, they’d only strum on the word “damn”. I didn’t discover what I was missing until we acquired a CD version, and was appropriately scandalized by the language. I apparently spent a good amount of time as a girl being scandalized.
7) Long Black Veil: Columbia Country Classics Volume 3
This entire album is a freaking national treasure, and memorization of all the songs should be mandatory for high school graduation. Also, I only figured out last year that Lefty sold out Pancho, and I’m starting to have doubts about Carmela. This is a great song for later at night, when you’re feeling maudlin and sentimental.
8) The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald: Gordon Lightfoot
This one has no chorus, and is more the kind of song you should memorize (even if you can’t sing a lick) in order to impress everyone with your authentic credentials. This is an excellent choice for someone who can’t sing to sing, since it has like a 5 note range and super simple melody. The strength is the lyrics.
9) The Downeaster Alexa: Billy Joel
Required singing for any beachside fire-pit sing-along from New London to Newburyport. Billy Joel has a straight-up fishing song, tinged with the grit of New Jersey and the smell of diesel. For contemplation: does he die in this song?
10) Hard Times Come Again No More
Another song sung by so many, this is a great theme for all of us as we persist through these dark days, held hard by pandemic in the right hand and squeezed by the icy grip of winter in the left. We can all sing together on the chorus “Hard Time Come Again No More” and get misty-eyed at the plaintive hope in this song.
‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary
Hard times, hard times, come again no more
Many a days you have lingered all around my cabin door
Oh, hard times, come again no more
So there you have it. When we get together again, let’s sing these songs together. I’ll take the verses – join me for the chorus.
And while we’re on the topic, ahead of any future improbable resurrections of unlikely music, I’ve also long been a huge fan of:
*None of them are actually sea shanties. Pedantry isn’t the point.