Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Songs Pirates Sang

Over and over I come back to the music that pirates in the Golden Age would have heard and sung. So much music has come and gone since 1715 that it’s hard for us to get a handle on what music was like back then.

We tend to concentrate on sea shanties, but most of the shanties we know are products of the 18th century. I believe that the influx of sailors of African origin into European shipping changed sea-songs permanently. Shanties, I think, were influenced strongly by the African tradition of call-and response song structure. (I also believe that this African structure strongly influenced the creation of the military “jody” or call-and-response marching cadence. But that’s a discussion for another time.”)

Music was everywhere in the early 1700’s. People did not wait until they were “professional quality” before singing or playing and instrument in public. Anyone who Often could scrape a song out on a fiddle or toot a horn would do so. People sang while they worked. People danced when they were happy.

Often songs educated their listeners. In the absence of history classes, the ballads about Robin Hood provided a glimpse of English history. We know they inspired Sam Bellamy and his crews.

So here are a few 17th century songs. (I don’t note 18th century songs, since so many of them date from long after the Age of Pirates.)

My favorite of the old songs remains “The Fair Maid of Amsterdam” also called “A-Rovin’.” This is a Really Old Song. The earlies records of it come from 1608, and it was not a new song then. This means that it was a song sung not only by Blackbeard, but by Avery, and even by Sir Frances Drake, king of the Elizabethan Sea Dogs. And yet we can listen to it easily, with no more than the click of a button.

The Fair Maid of Amsterdam

Next, I’m going to share a slightly more recent song. Many English ballads were collected by Francis James Child during the second half of the 19th century. Their lyrics and Child's studies of them were published as the 2,500-page book called The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. The tunes of most of the ballads were collected and published by Bertrand Harris Bronson in and around the 1960s.

Scholarly work like this has enabled us to enjoy these old songs. I am sharing a popular Robin Hood ballad from about 1640. If you enjoy it, other songs from the Child Ballads are available on YouTube.

Robin Hood Meets Little John

And our last song is younger yet. “Over the Hills and Far Away” goes back far enough that we aren’t sure of its origins, but this version was produced for a play in 1706, right in the middle of our time period. I also like the sentiment, one of running away from cares and seeking adventure. (OK, maybe I don’t believe in dumping spouses and children. But  

Our 'prentice Tom may now refuse
To wipe his scoundrel master's shoes

Sounds like the road to piracy, and all in a good cause.

Over the Hills and Far Away

There you go. A bit of research will lead you to yet more songs and ballads... The search gets easier every day.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Port Washington Family Pirate Daze

I’ve been going to the Port Washington Pirate Festival since its inception. It was my first ever Pirate event, and has done a lot to shape my ideas of what pirate events look like.  It has also shaped my performing career as a pirate storyteller. When the fest went on hiatus for several years, I was dejected. But now that it’s back, I continue to build my performance credentials.

This year in addition to being booked as an on-stage performer, I brought my tent for True Pyarte Tales, ready to story-tell all day, in between my scheduled performances. As usual, I had copies of my books to sell. However, setting up on Friday during 18mph wind gusts was quite the challenge!

I have an Easy-Up style tent, which I have modified by creating a linen canvas top and muslin sidewalls. (Yes, I know, an Easy-Up is hardly 18th century, but I’m doing the best I can.)  Setting this baby up in my backyard takes all of 15 minutes, even with the additional sidewalls, which attach with ties, and the linen top, which has to be layered on top of the nylon cover the tent came with. . But with high winds off Lake Michigan, this process suddenly turned into a 2-hour ordeal.  

Setup begins by carrying the collapsed tent to its proper location, setting it on its feet, pulling on the corners until it expands to full diameter, then locking the corners in place and raising the legs to their full height. It took nearly an hour to confirm our location in Rotary Park, a spit of land jutting into harbor, and winds were steadily rising.

My friend Jeff and I had dressed for the weather –chilly- but the rising winds were grabbing at our equipment, blowing hats and table covers all over. Before anything else happened, the tent had to go up. Our problem was that the top of an Easy-Up looks a lot like a parachute. Today it was acting like one.

As soon as one of us let go of a tent-side, it wanted to lift up into the air. Positioning the tent was crucial. Other educational presenters would be nearby and needed their space.  When the tent was finally in position, I let go and ran to our wagon to fetch the stakes and hammer.

A huge gust of wind roared by and suddenly the entire tent was in the air, headed toward the harbor. Only my first-mate Jeff, frantically holding on to one leg and a corner of the top, preventing it from leaving us all together! Good thing Jeff had a big lunch. If not, he might have been carried away like Dorothy, to the Land of Oz.

When the gust passed, I ran in with the equipment and showed him how to drive in the stakes. (Jeff’s a great guy, but definitely a city boy.) Four twelve-inch iron tent stakes eventually attached the structure to the ground, but with every gust, the aluminum tent poles bent until lit looked like they would snap. Fortunately, I was prepared.  We added 3 additional tie down ropes, with stakes, one in the middle of each side (except the front.)  Each side panel needed to be attached individually, a nightmare process, as knots untied themselves and the large pieces of fabric tried over and over to escape.

When we had finished, things still looked dicey. The sides billowed like sails in a storm. The linen top really wanted to head out on its own. Standing inside the tent felt almost as stressful as running around out in the gusts. We needed more rope to control all the whipping fabric.

We had an additional coil, but it had been intended as piratical decoration. We had no way to cut it. Then I remembered! A dear friend, a woodworker and member of my writing group, had sharpened my sword, turning it into a real weapon. I pulled out the blade and began cutting rope into usable pieces. We roped down the sides, tied them to the tent stakes, and passed a long section over the top of the tent to hold down the errant linen cover.

The time for my first storytelling presentation came, and I dashed off to do that. High winds prevented putting up my sign, but my new sound system worked well, and people seemed to enjoy my tales. Afterward we made one more trip to the tent, but it was useless to do anything further to prevent disaster.

The next morning, the linen top had disappeared. We found it hanging down the back of the tent, still secured by a single piece of rope. As we were trying to drag it back into position, Jeff told me, “I’m so often impressed by your commitment to realism. But now I want Velcro. Lots and lots of Velcro.”

Velcro would have been a very good thing.

That day, Saturday, was quiet. Apart from feeling odd whenever I left the tent – I was actually missing the moving walls- life was pretty good. I did my shows, and had a chance to check out some of the other performers and the Thieves’ Market.  Did a little shopping.

And then Jeff tells me that the next day will have thirty mile an hour winds.

We packed up that night, put the tent in the car, and with the organizer’s blessing, moved my table, signage and books into the vendor’s tent. The people who had put their tent next to us spent most of Sunday just keeping it from blowing away. As for us, we lived. I made my last show at 5:00 Sunday, and we went home. I can’t say it was really fun, but it was an adventure, and now I can write with authority about wind.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Pirate Empire Presents: Fun With Flags.

I was attending Port Washington Family Pirate Daze in Wisconsin over the weekend, and saw a flag I didn’t recognize, It was this one:

It’s the Royal Standard of the Sovereign  of the United Kingdom – the Official standard (officially a war-banner) used by Queen Elizabeth II and all British rulers since 1837. It flies over whatever home, castle, ship or limo they happen to be in. The date a little late (ok, a lot late) for our time period, but it got the thinking about how various flags have changed over the years.

This one features (twice) the three royal lions of England, the single royal lion of Scotland, and the harp of Ireland. (When in Scotland, the flag is changed to this one, with two Scottish lions. Apparently, the Scots are very persistent in getting what they want.  

This is the earliest flag of England – a red cross on a white field. It is the Cross of St. George, the patron saint of England, and has been in use since the Middle Ages, when England, like almost all or Europe, was a catholic country.

The so-called Union Jack, which became the national flag of the United Kingdom (England, Scotland and Wales) in 1707, had been used as a flag by the Royal Navy since 1606, and was therefore the flag that most pirates in the Caribbean would have been familiar with. The fact that it began as a sea-flag also explains why it is commonly called a “jack.” At seam the “ack” was a flag flown from the front of a ship on a short pole called a jackstaff. It is said that both jack and jackstaff relate to the name of James I, king of England in whose reign (1603–1625) the flag was designed.

Like the previous flag, Scotland had to be special, and had a versions of the flag where the white saltire went over the red cross.


France, a country with a long Catholic history, has long had the fleurs-de-lis

as its symbol, since the flower is a symbol of several Catholic saints. Since the days of Joan of Arc, French national heroine, the color white has been associated with the royal house of France. During the Golden Age, the French national flag was a white field strewn with many gold fleurs-de-lis. The naval flag of France, however, was a plain white flag, signifying purity of purpose.

‘The fact that a white flag also represents surrender or a pause for parlay was probably a source of amusement among the English.  

The Dutch flag has been a similar design since the Middle Ages, Originally the red stripe was orange, in honor of William of Orange. But orange was not a traditional heraldic color for flags, and was hard to decide on a shade. In 1630 the orange was officially changed to red.

The flag of Portugal, like the flag of France, was mostly white. The basic flag design was a crown over a shield that bore the country’s coat-of-arms. It was refurbished occasionally to reflect fashion trends in both. Peter II who became king in  in 1667, he adapted the crown by transforming it into a five-arched crown. It was refurbished again by Peter's son John V, in 1707.

A red beret was then added under the crown and the shield was given a new shape. This flag then survived into the mid-1800’s.

The Spanish, ever the conservatives, were late to come to the concept of a national flag. Ships flew the flag of the saint who was assigned the task of guarding the ship, and sometimes a regional flag. In the late Middle Ages, ships were encouraged to fly the cross of burgundy, but it could be embroidered on either a yellow or white background.

The flag below, which is mostly Spain’s coat of arms, was officially adopted in 1701 and flew until 1760 so most pirates would have recognized it.

So that’s it, the basic flags that Golden Age pirate would have seen and recognized. Sometime soon, we’ll have to take a closer look at the time period between 1701 and 1715. A lot was happening, and much of it affected pirates.