How I wish I were in Sherbrooke now!

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:

  • Opera, especially Wagnerian opera
  • 1970s folks rock with electric background (see also: Maddy Prior & Steeleye Span)
  • All the great folk trios of the 60s
  • Early music, inclusive, but especially focused on motets and madrigals, the works of Giovanni Gabrieli, and the repertoire of the pifarri.
  • Old school hymns
    Congrats! You got to the end. Have a haggis.

    *None of them are actually sea shanties. Pedantry isn’t the point.

  • If you are going to San Francisco

    Veterans of the 60s
    Veterans of the 60s

    The other day I created a new Pandora station. It goes back to the guitar lessons, you see. There’s this Simon and Garfunkel song (Kathy’s Song) that I want to learn how to play. I then discovered that somehow my Simon and Garfunkel hadn’t made it to my new computer, and thus not to my phone. Let’s just put some ellipses in here that cover the fact that 4 interventions later, I still do not have Kathy’s Song on my phone to play for my teacher nor my oldest favoritest CDs onto my new laptop which is synced with my iPod.

    But in the long journey towards getting my music in a place I can listen to it, I realized I hadn’t heard much Simon and Garfunkel lately, and that cannot stand. Enter the Pandora station.

    And people, this is the best Pandora station ever. It’s basically the singer song-writers of the 60s, with these great voices, acoustic guitars and fantastic lyrics. This year for Valentine’s day one of us got tickets to the ballet and one of us got an awesome sound system for the tv. Adam has a blast with him mom at the ballet, and with the Roku I can stream my music and it sounds great. So I’ve been listening to Pandora through this sound system with this rocking new station. Now, back in the old days, before they invented NPR (or more accurately, before any sort of talk radio actually made its way to the boonies where we lived – and yes I am older than talk radio) my family listened to the Oldies station. This was like the 80s, so oldies meant the 60s, as opposed to now when oldies mean the 80s. These are songs I actually recognize!

    The other day, I stayed up way too late with some friends playing a game that had been popular in my youth. This game is basically, “Just how out of touch is Brenda with everything pop culture”. In the modern edition it involved a playlist of Songs I Should Really know and then gales of laughter as I guessed Completely Inappropriate Bands. Let’s be honest… while I stand a decent chance of correctly pairing a aria with its composer, if not its opera, I can’t tell Aerosmith from Lynrd Skynr.

    Anyway, I’ve been listening to these old songs, new songs, lovely songs. I’ve been hearing the words far more clearly than I did in the back seat of the station wagon, waving in and out through distant FM waves. Some of the songs I completely misinterpreted. For example, I was listening to My Sweet Lord. At first I thought, ‘What a beautiful Christian anthem! Wonder why I haven’t heard it sung at a church service?’ All the “alle”s heading up to an “alleluia”. Yeah, I hear you laughing now. It’s not “alle” like “alleluia”. It’s “Hare” like “Hare Krishna”. Oops!

    Some of the other songs from the 60s break my heart and make me want to cry. Long on that list have been Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream and Imagine. This particular playlist is fond of If You Are Going to San Francisco. I’m increasingly struck by the hopefulness, the belief they had that this time it could really be different – the world could really be new. There was a spirit of joy that is so compelling, so lovely. The song simply promises that if you come to San Francisco, you should wear some flowers in your hair, and you will meet gentle people there. Gentle people. How often today are we offered gentle people? When is the last time you heard someone called gentle, or were called gentle yourself. We do not aspire to gentleness, we do not claim to desire gentleness.

    The flower children of the 60s were younger then than I am now, and their childhood seems lovely to me. My parents were of that generation (although decidedly not flower children). The persuasive hope and gentleness and optimism of a generation were erased, assassinated, worn down, made illegal, caricatured and faded. There are not unironic people in San Francisco – gentle – with flowers in their hair. We would say that John Lennon was a dreamer – and he died a violent death. He might not have been the only one when he sang, but I hear many fewer dreamers on Kiss 108.

    I get tired of irony, cynicism and self-consciousness. Our artists cannot afford sincerity. The internet, the media channels… they stand ready to mock the slightest weakness. Hope seems impossibly naive. The Boomers couldn’t change the world – what chance do the Millennials have, or those of us whose generation comes at the end of the alphabet? I look back to the childhood of my parents, the thrill of change, and I wish I had gone to San Francisco with flowers in my hair.

    I leave you with some thoughts from Bob Dylan:

    Come gather ’round people
    Wherever you roam
    And admit that the waters
    Around you have grown
    And accept it that soon
    You’ll be drenched to the bone
    If your time to you
    Is worth savin’
    Then you better start swimmin’
    Or you’ll sink like a stone
    For the times they are a-changin’.

    Come writers and critics
    Who prophesize with your pen
    And keep your eyes wide
    The chance won’t come again
    And don’t speak too soon
    For the wheel’s still in spin
    And there’s no tellin’ who
    That it’s namin’
    For the loser now
    Will be later to win
    For the times they are a-changin’.

    Come senators, congressmen
    Please heed the call
    Don’t stand in the doorway
    Don’t block up the hall
    For he that gets hurt
    Will be he who has stalled
    There’s a battle outside
    And it is ragin’
    It’ll soon shake your windows
    And rattle your walls
    For the times they are a-changin’.

    Come mothers and fathers
    Throughout the land
    And don’t criticize
    What you can’t understand
    Your sons and your daughters
    Are beyond your command
    Your old road is
    Rapidly agin’
    Please get out of the new one
    If you can’t lend your hand
    For the times they are a-changin’.

    The line it is drawn
    The curse it is cast
    The slow one now
    Will later be fast
    As the present now
    Will later be past
    The order is
    Rapidly fadin’
    And the first one now
    Will later be last
    For the times they are a-changin’.