The Golden Age of Piracy ended almost 300 years ago, and the days of fighting sail are long past. Sailors no longer load cannons by hand, and they certainly don’t need to “haul together” pump out the bilge or raise the sails. And yet pirate music lives on. In fact, it’s going stronger than ever.
Didn’t realize that new pirate music was being written? You’re probably in the majority. What surprises me is that the phenomenon isn’t just something that happened post-Pirates of the Caribbean. It kind of seems like people have written pirate music whenever they wanted to feel free. And now that piracy is no longer a hanging offense, singers can announce, “I’m a pirate!” even if that just means he wishes he was.
The first song I’m going to bring to your attention is the one that inspired me to write this piece. It was first recorded by Burl Ives, a folk singer who is best known in America as the voice of the snowman in the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer Christmas special. Ives – gentle, round, and famous for playing a snowman, is the last person I’d associate with pirates. I haven’t been able to find a YouTube version of Ives playing the song, but it appears in his 1953 book, The Burl Ives Songbook.
This song seems to have been written by Lesley Nelson-Burns (sometimes Byrnes) who collected fold music. It’s a very unusual pirate song, and not only because it came out in the 1950’s when pirates were bad guys and non-conformist behavior was frowned upon.
The song is sung from the point of view of a pirate standing under the window of his lady-love, as he proposes marriage. It is soft, romantic, and yet definitely a pirate song. He promises her his heart, apologizes for not being as “smooth” at love as the landlubbes who surround her, and then offers gold, slaves, and a tropical island where it is always spring to be her home.
Woven into this narrative are lines which support my own view of pirates as social revolutionaries. The lovelorn pirate mentions cannon fire, battles at sea, and an exotic location where people are free. But he ends on a somewhat solemn note: He will keep his bride until “the black flag by inches is torn from the mast.” In other words, until the authorities defeat the pirates and haul down the Jolly Roger by force.
Hauling down the “colors” (national flag) was a universal sign of surrender during a sea-battle. In cases where a crew had decided to fight to the death, refusing to surrender, the flag might be nailed to the mast, so it could not be taken down, no matter what. A grim, but romantic, end to a romance.
My second song was written during a more pirate-friendly era, the mid-1970’s. The singer/songwriter Roger McGuinn, formerly of The Birds, named his album after the fictional pirate ship in the song, The Cardiff Rose. The title of the track is Jolly Roger.
It was the first modern pirate song I had heard, and I loved it instantly. The story is of a man on the run from the Royal Navy, fleeing to the Caribbean with heavy thoughts on his head. But his secret to happiness is to not linger on the past, but to concentrate on opportunities in the form of Spanish gold.
The song not quite historically accurate to the Golden Age, however. That might be asking a lot from a songwriter more concerned with rhythm, rhyme and theme than the finer points of sailing. In the song, the pirates attack “a clipper” a type of ship not invented until the 1850’s – about 150 years after Spanish gold was a major consideration.
Many things are right, however. The pirates win their prize, not in a gun battle, but by firing once across the merchant’s bow. I’m also quite fond of the line, “We took as much as we’d require: then we took the rest for our pleasure.” But my ultimate fave of the this tune is the conclusion –
“Now there's many a day on the Spanish Main
But none I hold so dear
As the happy day I first became
A scurvy buccaneer!”
Lastly, the song by the Rambling Sailors (one of my favorite groups) Pirate’s Life. This one had me on the first line. “It’s wonderful living the life of a pirate, with the freedom to take what you can.” What sums up the life better? The song was written by Gregg Caicos on his thirtieth birthday, which seems to me like a really great way to celebrate getting older.
I’ll leva you with this one… This world is for those who can grab it and old it. It’s true for everyone, and I wish you all a week of making the most of life.