The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #128220   Message #2875918
Posted By: Gibb Sahib
30-Mar-10 - 04:51 PM
Thread Name: The Advent and Development of Chanties
Subject: RE: The Advent and Development of Chanties
...cotton-screwing cont.

Nordhoff's THE MERCHANT VESSEL, 1855

Nordhoff observed cotton-stowers in Mobile Bay (loading for Liverpool), sometime around 1845-1852. His account is famous for being the first (?) to clearly label this sort of work-song genre as "chant" and the lead singer as "chanty-man". Here is what he says:


All was now bustle and preparation. Numberless matters were to be attended to before the ship was really ready to take in cotton—the ballast was to be squared, dunnage prepared, the water-casks, provisions and sails to be lugged on deck, out of the way of cargo, the nicely painted decks covered with planks, on which to roll cotton, topgallant and royal yards crossed, and tackles prepared for hoisting in our freight. We had scarcely gotten all things in proper trim, before a lighter-load of cotton came down, and with it, a stevedore and several gangs of the screw men, whose business it is to load cotton-ships. Screwing cotton is a regular business, requiring, besides immense strength, considerable experience in the handling of bales, and the management of the jack-screws.

Several other ships had " taken up" cargo at the same time we did, and the Bay soon began to wear an appearance of life—lighters and steamboats bringing down cotton, and the cheerful songs of the screw-gangs resounding over the water, as the bales were driven tightly into the hold. Freights had suddenly risen, and the ships now loading were getting five-eighths of a penny per pound. It was therefore an object to get into the ship as many pounds as she could be made to hold. The huge, unwieldy bales brought to Mobile from the plantations up the country, are first compressed in the cotton presses, on shore, which at once diminishes their size by half, squeezing the soft fiber together, till a bale is as solid, and almost as hard as a lump of iron. In this condition they are brought on board, and stowed in the hold, where the stevedore makes a point of getting three bales into a space in which two could be barely put by hand. It is for this purpose the jack-screws are used. A ground tier is laid first; upon this, beginning aft and forward, two bales are placed with their inner covers projecting out, and joining, leaving a triangular space vacant within. A hickory post is now placed against the nearest beam, and with this for a fulcrum, the screw is applied to the two bales at the point where the corners join, and little by little they come together, are straightened up, and fill up the triangular space. So great is the force applied, that not unfrequently the ship's decks are raised off the
stancheons which support them, and the seams are torn violently asunder.

Five hands compose a gang, four to work the screws, and one to do the headwork—for no little shrewd management is necessary to work in the variously sized bales. When a lighter-load of cotton comes along side, all hands turn to and hoist it in. It is piled on deck, until wanted below. As soon as the lighter is empty, the gangs go down to the work of stowing it. Two bales being placed and the screws applied, the severe labor begins. The gang, with their shirts off, and handkerchiefs tied about their heads, take hold the handles of the screws, the foreman begins the song, and at the end of every two lines the worm of the screw is forced to make one revolution, thus gaining perhaps two inches. Singing, or chanting as it is called, is an invariable accompaniment to working in cotton, and many of the screw-gangs have an endless collection of songs, rough and uncouth, both in words and melody, but answering well the purposes of making all pull together, and enlivening the heavy toil. The foreman is the chanty-man, who sings the song, the gang only joining in the chorus, which comes in at the end of every line, and at the end of which again comes the pull at the screw handles. One song generally suffices to bring home the screw, when a new set is got upon the bale, and a fresh song is commenced.

The chants, as may be supposed, have more of rhyme than reason in them. The tunes are generally plaintive and monotonous, as are most of the capstan tunes of sailors, but resounding over the still waters of the Bay, they had a fine effect. There was one, in which figured that mythical personage "Old Stormy," the rising and falling cadences of which, as they swept over the Bay on the breeze, I was never tired of listening to. It may amuse some of my readers to give here a few stanzas of this and some other of these chants. " Stormy" is supposed to have died, and the first song begins:
    Old Stormy, he is dead and gone,
Chorus—Carry him along, boys, carry him along,
      Oh! carry him to his long home,
Chorus—Carry him to the burying-ground.
      Oh! ye who dig Old Stormy's grave,
Chorus—Carry him along, boys, carry him along,
       Dig it deep and bury him safe,
Chorus—Carry him to the burying-ground.
       Lower him down with a golden chain,
Chorus—Carry him along, boys, carry him along,
          Then he'll never rise again,
    Chorus—Carry him to the burying-ground.
Grand Chorus—Way-oh-way-oh-way—storm along,
Way—you rolling crew, storm along stormy.

And so on ad infinitum, or more properly speaking, till the screw is run out.
There was another in praise of Dollars, commencing

       Oh, we work for a Yankee Dollar,
Chorus—Hurrah, see—man—do,
       Yankee dollar, bully dollar,
Chorus—Hurrah, see—man—dollar.
         Silver dollar, pretty dollar,
Chorus—Hurrah, see—man—do,
          I want your silver dollars,
Chorus—Oh, Captain, pay me dollar.

Another, encouraging the gang:

Lift him up and carry him along,
Fire, maringo, fire away,
Put him down where he belongs.

Fire, maringo, fire away.
Ease him down and let him lay,
   Fire, maringo, fire away,
Screw him in, and there he'll stay,
Fire, maringo, fire away.
Stow him in his hole below,
Fire, maringo, fire away,
Say he must, and then he'll go,
Fire, maringo, fire away.

Yet another, calling to their minds the peculiarities of many spots with which they have become familiar in their voyagings:

       Were you ever in Quebec,
Chorus—Bonnie laddie, highland laddie,
       Stowing timber on the deck,
Chorus—My bonnie highland laddie, oh.
       Were you ever in Dundee,
Chorus—Bonnie laddie, highland laddie,
       There some pretty ships you'll see,
Chorus—My bonnie highland laddie, oh.
       Were you ever in Merrimashee.
Chorus—Bonnie laddie, highland laddie,
       Where you make fast to a tree,
Chorus—My bonnie highland laddie, oh.
       Were you ever in Mobile Bay,
Chorus—Bonnie laddie, highland laddie,
       Screwing cotton by the day,
Chorus—My bonnie highland laddie, oh.

These samples, which might be continued to an almost indefinite extent, will give the reader an idea of what capstan and cotton songs, or chants, are. The tunes are the best portion, of course, in all such rude performances. But these are only to be heard on board ship.

The men who yearly resort to Mobile Bay to screw cotton, are, as may be imagined, a rough set. They are mostly English and Irish sailors, who, leaving their vessels here, remain until they have saved a hundred or two dollars, then ship for Liverpool, London, or whatever port may be their favorite, there to spree it all away—and return to work out another supply. Screwing cotton is, I think, fairly entitled to be called the most exhausting labor that is done on ship board. Cooped up in the dark and confined hold of a vessel, the gangs tug from morning till night at the screws, the perspiration running off them like water, every muscle strained to its utmost. But the men who follow it prefer it to going to sea. They have better pay, better living, and above all, are not liable to be called out at any minute in the ni":ht, to fight the storm, or worse yet, to work the ship against a headwind. Their pay is two dollars per day, and their provisions furnished. They sleep upon the cotton bales in the hold, but few of them bringing beds aboard with them. Those we had on board, drank more liquor and chewed more tobacco, than any set of men I ever saw elsewhere, the severe labor seeming to require an additional stimulus. Altogether, I thought theirs a rough life, not at all to be envied them.

Four weeks sufficed to load our barque, and the last key-bale was scarce down the hatchway, when "Loose the topsails, and heave short on the cable," was the word, and we proceeded to get underweigh for Liverpool. Our new crew had come on board several days previously, and proved to be much better than the average to be obtained in cotton ports, places where sailors are generally scarce, and the rough screw-gangs mostly fill their places.

Nordhoff gives so much detail --though much still is unclear to us, today-- that I think this bears a close reading and lots of discussion. I think what Nordhoff describes might have been some sort of turning point (no pun intended). What do you guys think?

I am going to break for now, but re-reading this with the earlier references clearly established before it, I am starting to think new things about the directions of "flow" of this sort of songs.