The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #152346   Message #3563423
Posted By: Lighter
01-Oct-13 - 09:42 PM
Thread Name: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
Interesting discussion, Gibb. Interest in the topic of bawdy chanteys, I believe, stems largely from Hugill's practice of "camouflaging" and his promise of an uncensored collection. It's difficult not to try to tease out exactly what was "camouflaged." Neverthless I've decided it's largely futile. The altered words need not have included the rhyming word, which means that in some cases they could have been almost anything.

But the subject itself doesn't lend itself to solid conclusions.

First of all, what do the writers mean by a "dirty chantey" (or however they phrase it)? One that squarely addresses a bawdy theme (such as the "Crabfish" and "Ratcliffe Highway" versions of "Blow the Man Down")? Or, as is equally possible, do they mean a chantey that contains one ribald line or even word? And, as you observe, what we consider harmless or "good fun," at least some Victorians (like Baring-Gould) would have thought scandalous or obscene. A single word like "bitch" or "whore" or "arse" would have been enough to make a song thoroughly "obscene" to many people.

(I recently heard a fortyish Scotsman apologize to a group of Americans for telling a perfectly innocent anecdote that trivially included the "offensive" phrase "Bugger off!" Whatever his own estimation of it, experience must have taught him that even in 2013, "Bugger off!" might seem obscene to some people.)

Neverthless, it's hard to dismiss phrases like Whall's "veriest filth," Bullen's "very lewd and filhty," or Hugill's "obscene to a degree" as mere hyperbole.

I agree that Williams's words require some explanation. My guess, based on a long familiarity with chanteying, is that he meant that, as far as he knew, individual chanteys never (and that might include "rarely") changed their essential character or subject matter. As you say, he could not have been thinking literally of specific phrasing. "Boney," for example, is always about Napoleon, and the main incidents recounted don't change much. Williams may have felt that different verses appearing in different performances simply meant that the singer had forgotten some from a much longer original. Even scholars used to assume that all versions of a folk song must have descended from a single a ancestor that they might be able to reconstruct, so it may well be that Williams held the same uncritical view of chanteys: one person "wrote" a text and melody in the distant past and all subsequent singers tried their best to reproduce it. But we're getting off the topic.

Williams obliquely admits that "indecent language" was not uncommon in chanteys,but he implies that it was mainly improvised: "expurgated by common consent" can only mean "sung once and then forgotten." To say that chanteys contained "not a single offensive word" must then mean that no such words could have been present *in the pristine original.*

The statement seems less bizarre if, as seems perfectly likely, Williams had only heard chanteys with innocent themes. Why should he then believe that the original and ideal version could have contained any indecent language? Particularly if the indecent language he'd actually heard had been ad libbed only. It may also be that he was defending the moral character of sailors in general by fudging the facts a little. But his testimony does suggest that one *could* make many voyages in the late 19th century without hearing a chantey that was centrally concerned with sex or scatology.

Today it's probably impossible to belong to a beer-drinking rugby club and make a similar statement.

Terry's claim that chantey choruses were always "clean" is not untruthful, just a hasty conclusion drawn from his own experience. Hugill's experience was different and more extensive. And remember that Carpenter and others collected texts of "Jamboree" with the innocent chorus of "Jenny get your oatcake done!" Just how common the scatological chorus really was, we have no way of knowing.

It may not quite be comparing apples with oranges to suggest that the bawdy songs collected by Vance Randolph in the Ozarks represent more or less the level of working-class lewdness in the chanteys. Much of what Randolph collected was learned by his informants around 1900 or earlier.

Whether the chanteys got bawdier over time is unknowable. It is certainly not measurable. At the level of improvised lines, individual chanteymen could, in certain circumstances, always make up anything they wanted. The words didn't even have to rhyme. A better question is whether the proportion of fundamentally bawdy chanteys to all chanteys increased. But this is probably also unknowable.

I don't quite follow your statement that chanteys like "A Ship Load of Wagery" seem to be "non-existent among the earlier shanty repertoire." After all, that one lasted well from the 17th century into the 20th!

Steve undoubtedly knows more about 17th and 18th century broadsides than I do. But even many works of the "elite" poet, the Earl of Rochester, seem astoundingly coarse today (look no further than his bawdy farce "Sodom"). The question, though, is not whether individual chanteymen had dirty minds; it's how pervasive that style of singing was at any given time.

All I can suggest in answer to the question of whether the chanteys got steadily dirtier is that at least some modern, thoroughly bawdy songs, as sung by ruggers and servicemen, do seem to have gotten more insistently and imaginatively offensive over the years. Another unanswerable question.

(Consider this. In the letter-expurgated "Sally Brown" verse from Gordon, would any modern singer actually sing "my *love* grows bigger?" I doubt it. Had the source sung a different word, however, he could easily have left out some of the letters.)