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.


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