Pirate Radio 

Celebrating sea shanties: Songs of misogyny, racism, colonialism and, yes, sailing.

The sea shanty: It's not just for sailors anymore. These days, in fact, it's hardly for sailors at all.

Shanties are rarely sung to real work these days -- although their original purpose was to ease the drudgery of shipboard manual labor. But the East Bay abounds with folks who pride themselves on esoteric knowledge, songsmanship, and the ability to down a pint or three. Cornered at their favorite land-based drinking holes, they gladly walked the historical plank of rum, sodomy, and the lash to offer up their version of the truth.

Paddy lay back, take in the slack
Take a trip around the capstan, heave a pawl
About ship's stations boys be handy
For we're bound for Valaparaiso 'round the Horn

Dublin-born Shay Black, 53, lives in Berkeley and runs the Sunday night Irish session at the Starry Plough. The significance of shanties to his heritage became clear to him during his twenty-year stay in Liverpool, England, usually the first, and sometimes the last stop in Irish immigration.

"I realized the indigenous music was not the Beatles or skiffle," Black says. "It was shanty singing."

A 1976 Stan Ambrose program on Radio Merseyside enchanted Black, who then came to know Stan Hugill, one of the last true links between the sailors who sang shanties aboard ships and the landlubbing folkies who prettied them up. When Stan started, "it was just hoops and hollers and yelps," Black recalls.

Hugill -- to sea at age fourteen, merchant seaman, former POW captured by the Germans during WWII -- was the shit.

"He could speak fourteen languages," gushes Black, who recalls Hugill, aged eighty, scampering up the rigging of the Belem -- a ship used for training the French navy -- after downing a half-bottle of whiskey, all for the benefit of a French television crew. Hugill authored the four-hundred-page Shanties from the Seven Seas and other milestone works, cataloguing a disappearing oral tradition and in the process becoming the darling of the sea-music and folky crowd during the 1970s shanty revival.

Black sang the uncommon "Fiddler's Green" over Stan's grave in 1992. And then he pressed on, continuing to explore the music that fascinated Hugill as well. Black compares the shanty to the church, because "every voice is acceptable." At the Plough and with his group Nauticus, he revels in the call-and-response nature of the form.

Oh this is the tale of John Cherokee
(Ala-ba-ma John Cherokee!)

The Injun man from Miramashee
(Ala-ba-ma John Cherokee!)

With a haley high and a hauley low
(Ala-ba-ma John Cherokee!)

Often at Black's side in the Plough sessions is ruddy-faced Berkeleyan Peter Kasin, a part-time fiddler and full-time park ranger at San Francisco's Maritime National Historical Park on the Hyde Street Pier. Kasin weathered Hurricane Bob in a replica of the HMS Bounty, and once a month leads families and other stragglers in a shanty sing in the bowels of the 1886 square-rigger Balclutha, rigged at the pier.

For organizing the pier's annual Sea Music Festival, a May event featuring traditions from places as far-flung as the Georgia Sea Islands, Kasin was bestowed the National Park Services' Freeman Tilden award. Oh yes, Kasin, he savvy.

Kasin also is obsessed with shanties. He enjoys the cadence of the West Indian tunes. "You're not necessarily telling a story," he says. "You're lightening the load and creating a rhythm."

But there's also a somewhat complicated historical context to wade through. Many a crew in the great age of sail was a "checkerboard" variety, with blacks and whites working opposite shifts. Still, they were certainly aware of each other's presence.

Oh Shallow Brown, Shallow in the mornin'
Ooh, Shallow, ooh! Just as the day wuz dawnin'

"I love the rhythms and syncopation of the West Indian songs," Black concurs -- he notes their rig-a-jig chorus origins in Killarney "jaunting cart" songs. "But I also love the feeling of self-determination and self-esteem in the black shanties." He gives this Guyanese song as an example:

Essequibo River is the king of rivers all
Buddy ta-na-na we are somebody, oh!
Somebody, o, Johnny, somebody, oh
Buddy ta-na-na we are somebody, oh!

These dudes knew that on the high seas, their value was equal to anyone else's when the chips were down.

From the Barbary Coast steer clear me boys an' from ol' Larry Marr
Or else damn soon shanghaied ye'll be by Larry's five-gallon jar

"Five-Gallon Jar," or "Larry Marr," has its origins just across from the Balclutha's moorings: San Francisco's infamous Barbary Coast, where saloon-keeping scum like Marr loaded patrons' drinks with drugs. Said unfortunate drinkers often woke up five miles out to sea in the service of the Chinese tea trade -- hence the term "shanghaied" -- with little choice.

But the guys at McGrath's Irish Pub in Alameda -- an old Navy crawl in the isle's halcyon military days -- don't need to be told this. Hell, the singers at the weekly Tuesday shanty session even have a spiral-ringed notebook with the tunes' lyrics.

One of the singers also has, unfortunately, a conga drum.


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