Monday, May 19, 2014

A Pirate's Favorite Songs

What music did pirates listen to?

Many people have written about sea shanties, and songs such as “What do You do With a Drunken Sailor?” are deeply embedded in our concept of all things having to do with ships and the sea.

What shall we do with a drunken sailor?
What shall we do with a drunken sailor?
What shall we do with a drunken sailor?

Shanties were work songs, and their length and structure was adapted to specific types of work. Capstan shanties had a rhythm useful for keeping men in step as they turned the capstan. “Long haul shanties” had long lines and many verses, to keep the sailors in rhythm while they raised sails or pulled the ship in to shore, while “short haul” shanties were briefer, so the men working on a shorter task would not run out of work before the song was over.

Come all ye young fellows that follows the sea
To me, way hey, blow the man down
Now please pay attention and listen to me

But, one and all, shanties were work songs. And while they were enjoyable to listen to or to sing, once work was done, sailors wanted to listen to something different.

Much classical music comes down to us from this period, but working class people were not likely to have opportunity to hear much of it.  It required technical skill and a high-quality instrument – often an orchestra of them – to perform. In the days long before music was recorded, this kind of live performance was a luxury of the rich.

Instead, travelers such as sailors and pirates crowded into alehouses to drink and sing. Popular music of the time was not something you listened to. It was something you made yourself.

Alehouses hired fiddlers when they were able, and if they encouraged dancing, might have a small band, composed of whatever musicians they were able to hire. A group like this rarely had more than three players, usually a fiddler, with perhaps a drummer, and a trumpeter. But most often the fiddler played alone.

Alehouse patrons sang, with all the abandon of people who know for certain they won’t be recorded, and are too drunk to care, anyway. Even when an establishment was too poor to afford even a single fiddle, the patrons would sing.

What did they sing? Some were folk songs, like “Greensleeves” or “Barbara Allen” which may have been around for centuries. But others were brand new. Songwriters composed lyrics which were printed on “broad sheets,” large, single sheets of cheap paper that were sold by vendors in the street for a penny apiece.

Alehouse owners bought these sheets and pasted them onto their walls. It was a “draw” for potential patrons, who might want to learn some new music. The more literate would read and sing, and the less literate (or less sober) would come in for the chorus, or try to follow along, if they had heard the words some time before.

It seems amazing that any of these inexpensive, temporary, cheaply produced sheets would ever come down to us, but in fact, many have.  A few wealthy men took an interest in this art form, collected the sheets, and pasted them into scrap books, which have survived over 3 centuries.

So what were the songs about? Most were about love. Some were about heroes, and a few were even about pirates. Songwriters used the same tunes over and over. It was easier to just write new words, and the patrons liked something familiar. Examples of this phenomena include “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” which has the same tune as “The Bear Went Over the Mountain,” and a French tavern-song called “Marlbrough s'en va-t-en guerre”, so popular that it inspired silk dresses, printed souvenirs, hairstyles, and even a type of soup.

Four of the English songs on one on-line list are about Robin Hood, which offers some perspective on Captain Sam Bellamy, whose pirate crew referred to themselves as “Robin Hood’s men.”  This wasn’t just a reference to an old story. These men were tying themselves to currently popular media.

A song which has stood the test of time was “SpanishLadies” whose catchy first stanza was made famous by the movie “Jaws.” Captain Quint (Robert Shaw) has done something typical of alehouse songs. He has changed the song to match his own circumstances, turning the home port of “England” to “Boston”, since he is an American.

Listening to these songs in a tavern, 300 years ago, would be nothing like reading about them online, or even tuning in to a YouTube video. For one thing, all the participants would be drunk or close to it. A few strong singers would try to lead, with other participants carrying on at full volume, despite not knowing all the words, or perhaps having an entirely different version of the song in mind. The chorus would be the loudest part. But the full experience included the winks and nudges of singers who noticed or imagined a dirty bit, background shouts of bartenders and servers, the flickering light of candles, the smell of smoke and bodies, and a great deal of conviviality, and what can only be termed fellowship.

Indeed, one scholar suggests that the closest modern equivalent is a group of alumni gathered after a football game, trying to sing the old school song. With beer, of course.

I could never have hoped to include enough songs to make any impression, but to those who want to learn more (and hear more of the music) enjoy the link

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