The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #126347   Message #2863093
Posted By: Gibb Sahib
12-Mar-10 - 10:28 PM
Thread Name: From SF to Sydney - 1853 Shanties Sung?
Subject: RE: From SF to Sydney - 1853 Shanties Sung?
Great stuff here!! Very exciting.

John, with your Part 9a you're moving into dangerous waters...there be pyrates and sea monsters...but it is my favorite place, and one where, in my opinion, discussions too infrequently venture.

Musical form is the main part. Hugill, for example, does a poor job addressing this. It is reflected by his wacky organizational scheme which goes, "oh, and hey, another song that mentions the name 'Johnny' is this one here..." He is very text-centric / lyric-centric despite his comments about the floating nature of chantey texts. To my knowledge, chanties have yet to be "sorted" on the basis of musical analysis -- by which I suppose I mean melodic and rhythmic content. (We have been sorting them by musical form, in a way, by talking about call and response, choruses, etc, though that is also partly textual.)

There are several difficulties. One is the relative high ambiguity of musical material in "pointing" towards this or that cultural sphere, region, etc. It's a bit like asking what languages a certain letter combination, say /bla/, belongs to. That could suggest English to some ("black"), but Arabic to another ("tabla"), etc etc. In other words, while these features would seem to exclude some origins, they also *include* far too many. By way of example, to me, "Sally Brown" doesn't evoke anything "celtic" in its tune. But even if I manage to put my finger on and explain what makes it sound like it belongs to "African-America" to me, that is very far from proving it is not "celtic." Consequently, I've no reasonable cause to doubt that it sounds Celtic to John. Musical language -- or at least the parts that are easily notated -- is so limited that it must necessarily be shared among cultural groups and it cannot tell us so much without more clues 'n' context.

As we well know, those clues don't come through in simple music notation. What's more, the music notation in the older texts was even less able to cope with representing features that might give clues. I suspect, for example, that some of the weird chromatic passages in some collector's notations, reflects the fact that people had yet to deal with the issue of "blue notes." To hear the singing of such "blue notes" might influence us to strongly suspect an African-American source. But set down on paper as a bland, equal-tempered (think piano) pitch, the "spelling" of the notes might make the phrase look equally Italian (or whatever).

It is not hopeless, however. One need not try to pin a certain music form to a certain culture group. Again, I like "African-American"....which in my mind shades off dangerously close to just "American," for its inherent ambiguity and mixed nature. The early stars of the minstrel stage and its composers were mainly of Irish descent. It seems that they were trying to evoke songs of Blacks on one hand, but were very much speaking through their own, familiar musical language, on the other. And I've really no idea if one could say whether these tunes could be said to have this or that degree of this or that ethnic music to them...only that they were something in themselves that one might study. I am sure that if one were to analyze all the chanties musically, some kind of groupings would emerge. These may not be very clear with regards to ethnicity or geography, but they may say something about source genres or time periods.

Incidentally, I had delivered a paper about Hugill's chanties at a conference in Liverpool. Much of it happened to be about issues of representation that John is touching upon... and , even more incidentally, if was frustrating because I felt much of my audience did not want to engage the issues because they were quite biased towards the very idea of me trying to tell them anything about chanties. After all, the English are the only proper shanty-singers, right?! It was funny that out of a room of scholars who are ostensibly trained to study music and culture objectively, regularly discovering that musical phenomena are not what they seem in popular knowledge, that this birth-right sort of confidence ("We know all about shanties") would block a dialogue. So I was actually refreshed to get a question from a non-British person (some one from continental Europe) who was of a more musicologist sort of bent, and who was mostly just curious if, after learning Hugill's shanties, I had observed any specific, quantifiable musical characteristics. At least that was something relatively objective to talk about. (And if you'll permit me one tiny moment of negativity: I am so glad we have a topic like "shanties" to talk about here, as opposed to the dire "What is folk?" discussions on Mudcat that seem hopelessly confounded by people's notions of their cultural heritage.)

I want to mention two other anecdotes/examples, just to think about (not directed towards any really specific point). First is that I've a subscriber to my YouTube channel, from North America, who I've noted consistently responds (i.e. comments) more favourably to chanties that I feel have an "American" bent to their melodies. And behind this particular notion of American goes the musical language that emerged from African-American culture. I'd guess that this person is not consciously aware of these musical traits, but that rather they are responding, as an American, to something familiarly American.

Second anecdote is the case of Dick Maitland, who sang for Doerflinger. The way he allegedly sang "Leaving of Liverpool" is quite distinct for a certain melodic pattern. He uses a pattern of "DO ti sol" that, I feel, is rare in these songs. So rare, perhaps, that it was counter-intuitive to the revival singers who picked up the song. I'm not sure who was the first, but whoever rendered it from the printed page accidently -- although I'm sure musical inclination was the influence -- changed the pattern. And what we have today im the revived form is much more "agreeable" to the common "ear." I was thinking about this again recently because I was trying to learn a variation on "Banks of Newfoundland" sung by Maitland. It contained the same queer melodic pattern. I'd venture to guess that this was something particular about Maitland's musical language -- it is that distinct. (Analogous to a certain pattern that I hear in some Jamaican singers of the 60s, which sounds like they'd been copying the personal "language" of Curtis Mayfield!)

Something *can* be done with musical analysis. However, we are crippled by the poor notations. A good number of chanties in Hugill's modern text are just flat our wrong in their notation. It has nothing to do with singers' variation; it is pure incompetence. But the usual, basic issue is the simplicity of notation that wipes away what may have been distinctive, clue-giving traits. As for recordings: Of the recordings of living chantey singers that exist, I am skeptical of their range. Not only the fact that they are invariably far past their prime, and even farther from actually context (Who yelps out a blood-curdling halyard chantey whilst sitting in an easy chair across from a genteel folk-song collector?), but the historical time period, their ethnicity, etc make them limited.

Briefly: The issues of political correctness, mimetic awkwardness, white-washing (or blacking-up, as the case may be!), and other ethnicity confusion and how they have affected the course of chantey-singing is one of my great interests... and I think best for another thread :) Still, it helps some to be aware of the issues, when analyzing data. But ultimately, the value of this kind of consideration is that it helps us not to make assumptions...but doesn't tell us anything positively. Whall might have preferred blue-eyed damsels because he was a bit racist and wanted to change the essence of the text, but equally likely was that Sailor John (of any stripe) just felt like loving a blue-eyed gal at that moment.