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Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'

GUEST,blsmith 09 Jul 13 - 02:54 PM
Keith A of Hertford 09 Jul 13 - 03:01 PM
Anglogeezer 09 Jul 13 - 03:05 PM
Highlandman 09 Jul 13 - 03:24 PM
Gibb Sahib 09 Jul 13 - 03:53 PM
GUEST,blsmith 09 Jul 13 - 04:12 PM
greg stephens 09 Jul 13 - 04:22 PM
greg stephens 09 Jul 13 - 04:22 PM
Gurney 09 Jul 13 - 04:30 PM
Steve Gardham 09 Jul 13 - 04:31 PM
Steve Gardham 09 Jul 13 - 04:32 PM
Rumncoke 09 Jul 13 - 05:04 PM
Lighter 09 Jul 13 - 05:21 PM
McGrath of Harlow 09 Jul 13 - 05:37 PM
Gibb Sahib 09 Jul 13 - 05:41 PM
Q (Frank Staplin) 09 Jul 13 - 07:24 PM
Lighter 09 Jul 13 - 08:12 PM
McGrath of Harlow 09 Jul 13 - 09:08 PM
Gibb Sahib 09 Jul 13 - 09:24 PM
Fossil 09 Jul 13 - 09:51 PM
Lighter 10 Jul 13 - 07:41 AM
Q (Frank Staplin) 10 Jul 13 - 12:24 PM
Rumncoke 10 Jul 13 - 05:11 PM
Charley Noble 10 Jul 13 - 08:51 PM
Rumncoke 11 Jul 13 - 03:40 PM
Lighter 11 Jul 13 - 05:07 PM
Rumncoke 11 Jul 13 - 06:54 PM
Gibb Sahib 11 Jul 13 - 07:38 PM
Lighter 11 Jul 13 - 07:51 PM
Rumncoke 12 Jul 13 - 08:09 AM
Charley Noble 12 Jul 13 - 08:58 AM
Rumncoke 12 Jul 13 - 10:58 AM
Gibb Sahib 12 Jul 13 - 07:14 PM
Lighter 12 Jul 13 - 08:07 PM
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Subject: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: GUEST,blsmith
Date: 09 Jul 13 - 02:54 PM

Greetings Mudcatters:

There are at least two shanties that have lyrics that contain the phrase "topsails all a quiver". One is the WIld Goose (I spied a pretty fair maid with her topsails all a quiver); and the other is a verse from a version of Shenandoah (Missouri is a mighty river, when she rolls down her topsails quiver). There may be others.

In nautical terms, what does it mean when "topsails are a quiver"? Does it mean that the sails are well-set, trimmed? That the ship is sailing well, looking good, sailing smooth and fast, etc? When would topsails quiver? Is it a formal term or just a nice image to use in song lyrics?


Thanks,

Smitty


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: Keith A of Hertford
Date: 09 Jul 13 - 03:01 PM

Sailing very close to the wind?


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: Anglogeezer
Date: 09 Jul 13 - 03:05 PM

Well, to my mind, in a technical sense we're talking about square-rigged vessels.
If they are shaking then the vessel is sailing too close to the wind for them to draw properly. Either the yards should be trimmed or the course adjusted.

Refering to the pretty fair maid, I guess that she's showing a sailor all that she needs to, to gain his interest!! and if her bosom quivers like the top-sail of a ship sailing too close to the wind - well thats all we need to know!

Jake


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: Highlandman
Date: 09 Jul 13 - 03:24 PM

If a square-rigger were sailing "topsails all aquiver" there would no doubt be some harsh words directed to the helmsman. Seems like one of those almost-nautical expressions that, oddly, sailors who should know better evidently tolerated in their songs. Like the wind that "bends the gallant mast" -- one would hope not, if the shrouds were set up properly!
-Glenn


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: Gibb Sahib
Date: 09 Jul 13 - 03:53 PM

Smitty,

What do you mean when you say these chanties have these lyrics? There is only what people have sung or presented as being sung. Who has sung this phrase?

AFAIK the only source for "The Wild Goose" is Roy MacKenzie's Nova Scotia collection, 1928. No quivering topsails there. I think it is extremely likely that Lloyd's Shanty Manufacturing Company made up that verse when they looked at MacKenzie's book, squinted their eyes, and made up a rendition. Trying to be all coy and sexy.

Whose rendition of 'Shenandoah'? I can't remember having ever seen that verse sung with it. It also sounds contrived to me.

However, there is this, from a 1909 piece by James H. Williams:

"Oh, a Yankee ship came down the river;
Blow! Boys, blow!
He luffs her up 'till her topsails quiver;
BLOW! My bully boys, blow!"

i.e. rather than being floppy at all, the sail is so taut that it quivers like a drum when touched by the breeze.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: GUEST,blsmith
Date: 09 Jul 13 - 04:12 PM

Gibb Sahib,

The version of the Wild Goose with "topsails all a quiver" is in the DT data base.

The verse used in Shenandoah is on a recording by Andrew Calhoun on his Grapevine album. The song is just noted as traditional. The other verses that he uses are fairly common in other renditions of Shenandoah.

It seems to be that Hugill had mentioned the Shenandoah verse, but I've looked and can't find it.

Thanks for your help with this,

Smitty


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: greg stephens
Date: 09 Jul 13 - 04:22 PM

I am with Gibb Sahib on this(as on most shanty matters). Quivering would definitely be a characteristic of a taut sail, rather than a floppy one. As to the characteristics of the upper parts of young ladies, I couldn't possibly comment.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: greg stephens
Date: 09 Jul 13 - 04:22 PM

I am with Gibb Sahib on this(as on most shanty matters). Quivering would definitely be a characteristic of a taut sail, rather than a floppy one. As to the characteristics of the upper parts of young ladies, I couldn't possibly comment.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: Gurney
Date: 09 Jul 13 - 04:30 PM

I would agree with Anglogeezer up there. The 'pretty fair maid' would be swinging along allowing her breasts to move to attract prurient interest, which would bring her possible maidenhood into question, but this sailor was obviously out of luck.

Brassieres are a fairly recent invention, I believe.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: Steve Gardham
Date: 09 Jul 13 - 04:31 PM

A well-known Dibdinesque type song is 'The Topsail Shivers in the wind' words by a Captain Thompson with music by Michael Arne. It was more of a drawingroom song than a sailor's song, but Huntington gave a version from a whaling log in 'Songs the Whalermen Sang'. I could imagine it being sung aft but not by ordinary crew members. Too flowery. It dates back to the 18thc.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: Steve Gardham
Date: 09 Jul 13 - 04:32 PM

She stood on the bridge at midnight
Her topsails all a quiver.
She gave a cough and her leg fell off
And floated down the river.

I'll get me coat!


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: Rumncoke
Date: 09 Jul 13 - 05:04 PM

The quivering is caused by the wind flowing both in front and behind the canvas - so there is insufficient pressure behind it to keep is steady and drawing.

The luff of a triangular sail is the front edge, to luff up - as did the Yankee skipper, is to turn the bow into the wind.

The ship would be slowed down as it is losing the wind, but still have way on her.

Perhaps the fair maid is not only displaying her assets but slowing down to assess the possibilities of her audience.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: Lighter
Date: 09 Jul 13 - 05:21 PM

The line about the fair maid is modern. No old-time shantyman, including Hugill or Rutzebeck, ever sang it. But it sure sounds salty, don't it?

Maybe the singers on Lloyd & MacColl's "Blow Boy Blow" meant breasts; or maybe they just meant the girl was like a ship in full sail. Or both. Do the analysts care to address the title of the LP itself?

Sailor slang for breasts was "catheads."


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: McGrath of Harlow
Date: 09 Jul 13 - 05:37 PM

The assumption that ordinary sailors wouldn't be likely to sing something "too flowery" is a bit suspect. Plenty of songs of previous generations have been extremely" flowery and it didn't stop them being well liked. Sailors have often liked the ornate - think of skrimshaw.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: Gibb Sahib
Date: 09 Jul 13 - 05:41 PM

Sorry to be pedantic, but Step 1 is to see if anybody—anybody who used language authentically with respect to the issue—ever sang this. Step 2 is to determine exactly what they said, and Step 3 is the analysis and discussion :)

"The Wild Goose" provides no evidence that such a phrase was used. But Lloyd's creation from the fragment, which alludes to a lady's bouncy boobs, is so popular and well-known through his album and people's cover versions of it that the line might rattle around in our heads as something we imagine to be traditional pre-1950s.

Unfortunately I don't know Andrew Calhoun's album, just that that particular couplet doesn't ring authentic to me in the context of "Shenandoah." Too bad he doesn't say where he learned it from or how he constructed his rendition. That is the problem. Am I cynical enough to think that Lloyd's recording put "quiver" into the consciousness of late 20th century performers, and this manifested in Calhoun's rendition? Yes, I am.

The Williams article provides some authentic evidence. Williams was a biracial American sailor who's sea career started in the late 1870s and who served in countless ships. I think some of his comments *about* chanties in his articles are deluded at times (!), but there is no reason to think his line wasn't sung.

I did a search on my notes which have very many of the documented lyrics of chanties from most collections. The notes don't include the complete lyrics in Hugill, however, nor some of the other later collections (which generally don't offer much original anyway). The Williams piece was the only one where the word "quiver" turned up in the search.

Therefore, I'd only interpret the meaning of the phrase from the Williams "Blow Boys Blow."

However, it does seem likely that other people would have rhymed "river" and "quiver" at some point! Though "shiver" is a more plausible rhyme, I think. When we get some more examples, it may shed more light!


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 09 Jul 13 - 07:24 PM

The verse of a version of Shenandoah mentioned by blamith is from Joanna C. Colcord, "Songs of American Ssilormen."

Missouri she's a mighty river;
When she rolls down her topsails shiver.

She says: "This is a late corrupted form, and was the one used on American ships after the Civil War. The words, as will be seen, are simply nonsense, but it was one of the best known and most frequently used of the capstan shanties. The tune is very free in its rhythms, and cannot be written in one tempo.
Whall gives the earlier version, which was the story of how a white trader courted the daughter of the famous Indian chieftain Shenandoah, and bore her away in his canoe 'cross the wide Missouri.'

"He says: "The seaman of to-day knows nothing of this old song except the tune and one line, "Oh, Shenandore, I love your daughter."...
Originally it was a song, not a shanty, and had nothing to do with salt water... It probably came from the American or Canadian voyageurs, who were great singers....""

To simplify, trying to make sense of nonsense simply adds more nonsense.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: Lighter
Date: 09 Jul 13 - 08:12 PM

They shiver, not quiver.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: McGrath of Harlow
Date: 09 Jul 13 - 09:08 PM

I'd imagine that for a shantyman the tune and the one line, and the fact that the tune was well suited to use as a worksong, would have been quite sufficient to get it put to use. The origin as a river song wouldn't have been in any way significant. All songs come from somewhere, mostly from other songs.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: Gibb Sahib
Date: 09 Jul 13 - 09:24 PM

Thanks for tracking down the reference, Q.

This can't be proven, but if we had a time machine I'd be willing to make a wager that Colcord made up/spruced up that line. Am I impossible to please? No. But like most of Colcord's chanties, that one is a fairly transparent composite of elements from Whall's and Cecil Sharp's collections. As for that line, the part of "Missouri she's a mighty river" is there in Whall and, all things considered, it fairly marks his version. However, Whall pairs it with a non-rhyming phrase about the "redskin camp." Colcord was not going for the "redskin" theme, nor, it seems, would she tolerate a couplet that didn't rhyme! So she crafted a plausible-sounding second-phrase. My theory.

As for nonsense—just because Colcord couldn't understand it doesn't make it nonsense. Is poetry "nonsense"? I'm unclear. Poetry is a different "modality" (I dunno, I just chose that word - what's a better one?) of expression from prose, conversation, signage, etc. The modality of chanties is something that I think a lot of authors could not grasp, or else they needed to apologize for printing, so they called it "nonsense." I've noticed that a sort of trope of saying chanties were "nonsense" developed in the literature; it was well established by Colcord's time. Some people outright said chanties were trash because of it, though most, already endeared to the genre, apologized for it. They said that the words were just to create rhythm for work (ostensibly the most important thing) or that they gave vent to their predicament, etc—any way to avoid accepting the lyrics for themselves, to avoid dealing with them as potentially aesthetically satisfactory to someone.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: Fossil
Date: 09 Jul 13 - 09:51 PM

Rumncoke has it right, but perhaps a bit more explanation might help. On a square-rigged ship, the sails are stretched along the yards (or yard-arms) and dangle down from them. The angle of the sail to the wind is then controlled by turning the yards and the sails are tensioned by means of ropes (sheets) to the lower corners.

One thing I hadn't realised until I did some sailing on tall ships was that the lower yards are turned further off the wind than the higher ones, so that if you consider all the sails on an individual mast as a unit, there is a distinct twist in it, like the wing of an aeroplane. This explains why tall ships can move, even if the wind isn't directly behind them.

As the sails are braced round, the angle of the topsails to the wind is smaller than the lower sails, and so when the limit is reached - when the sails can't be turned any further without being back-winded - the topsails start quivering first. So bracing the yards around until the topsails just start quivering, then easing a trifle until the shivering stopped, meant that the sailors would be getting the best possible thrust out of their sails. A quivering sail isn't efficient.

"Shivering the topsails" was also used deliberately when the ship needed to slow down without going to the laborious task of furling all the sails. A back-winded, shivering sail is creating drag, not thrust and does the job nicely.

How this all fits into the use of the phrase in songs varies with the nautical expertise of the songwriter and/or the audience. The sails wouldn't quiver as a result of anything the river would do, so that's probably poetic licence, but the Williams quote above sounds authentic to me.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: Lighter
Date: 10 Jul 13 - 07:41 AM

Definitions of "poetry" and "nonsense" aren't the issue.

If Colcord were going to create a new rhyming line for Whall's couplet, she could have done a lot better than the seeming non sequitur of a river having topsails.

My guess is that she printed what she'd heard.

But as nonsensical as the stanza might look on the page, it might have sounded better at sea. The improvising shantyman, hurriedly looking for a rhyme and not concerned with pleasing imagined readers, may simply have changed the subject between the lines. The "she" in line two would then refer not to the Missouri but to the ship.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 10 Jul 13 - 12:24 PM

This has all been discussed before, especially in the long thread 4257, "Origin: Shenandoah."

This thread has digressed, Much discussion of Whall's version; if not posted in the Origin' thread (4257), I will put it there. His first verse:

Missouri, she's a mighty river
Refrain
Away, you rolling river
The redskin' camp lies on the border
Refrain
Ah-ha I'm bound away 'cross the wide Missouri.

Shiver-
See "Origin" thread for full rowing song from St. Vincent (Abrahams); verse 4:

And on our way she roll and shiver
Refrain
Hurrah, my rolling river
Down in our way she sport dirty water
Refrain
We are bound away from this world of misery.

Origin: Shenandoah


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: Rumncoke
Date: 10 Jul 13 - 05:11 PM

I've seen sails used to indicate the layers of female clothing

'she lowered her topsls, t'gallants and all
her lily white hands on his reef tackle fall'

is probably one of the most salacious lines I sing...

I get the same sense of shivering the tops'ls as in that song 'take it easy, take it easy, don't let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy' - I have an Eagles album with it on - where the woman slows down to take a look at him.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: Charley Noble
Date: 10 Jul 13 - 08:51 PM

Rumncoke-

"'she lowered her topsls, t'gallants and all
her lily white hands on his reef tackle fall"

This has strayed somewhat from the version of "Cruisin' Round Yarmouth" recorded on Blow, Boys, Blow" which runs:

"She laid in her foresheets, stays'ils and all,
With her lily white hand on me reef tackle fall..."

But not to worry. It took me years to figure out what a "reef tackle fall" really was but I did figure out what it meant in the song.

Cheerily,
Charley Noble


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: Rumncoke
Date: 11 Jul 13 - 03:40 PM

Ah - now I call that 'the run ashore' - but as usual I have no idea where I heard it. Not on vinyl.

As a stick and rag sailor myself, I would find it difficult to sing something I could not make sense of.

Staysails are any triangular sail hoisted on a stay - a wire or rope - rather than a spar or boom. Foresheets are the ropes at the foot of a fore sail - which could be a jib which is a staysail - but how to 'lay in' either of them I have no idea.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: Lighter
Date: 11 Jul 13 - 05:07 PM

More authentically seafaring versions have "lowered" or "brailed in" in place of "laid in."


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: Rumncoke
Date: 11 Jul 13 - 06:54 PM

Not for a staysail - a brayle is a way to draw in a sail by pulling on a rope which goes over a pulley fixed onto a spar of some kind. By definition, a staysail has no spar.

You could clew up a staysail by drawing the clew of the sail up the stay so that the leading edge is all concertina-ed and then folding it up and tying it so the fixings could then be released and the sail lowered or carried down the mast/rigging. That might be safer than trying to wrestle the sail downwards and move it back along the bowsprit.

It still makes no sense, though.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: Gibb Sahib
Date: 11 Jul 13 - 07:38 PM

Thanks for your knowledge, Rumncoke! (And Fossil, too!)

Out of curiosity, which is the part that doesn't make sense? Is it the "laid in" part?

If that's the case, may I be the pedant and remind again on not getting in a twist based on lines in inauthentic sources (i.e. Ewan MacColl's recording).

On the other hand, to hazard a guess, perhaps the singer of the line was (incorrectly or not) not thinking of taking in sail, but trying to say that the woman "lay" (she was lying down).


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: Lighter
Date: 11 Jul 13 - 07:51 PM

Admittedly sails are usually brailed "up" rather than "in" (when, like foresails and mainsails, they're equipped with brails at all, as you point out).

But few landlubbers were likely ever to have heard of "brailing" in any direction. So the word had to go

"Lowering" and "brailing up" make sense if the "sails" refer, as I believe they do, to articles of clothing like a blouse and a dress (not to mention billowing mid-19th century crinolines!). Either they came down or they went up.

You can also choose between "reef-tackle fall" and "gun-tackle fall." The second is more suggestive, and the first is said to mean "belt." It would be interesting to know why.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: Rumncoke
Date: 12 Jul 13 - 08:09 AM

Belt eh?

A reef tackle is a piece of thick cord put through a reinforced hole in a sail.

To reef the sail it is folded up or down - depending on if square or fore and aft rigged - onto the spar it is attached to, then the two ends of the reef tackle are knotted together (in a reef knot)around the folded sail and spar. There would be a line of them all along the sail at the same level, to shorten the sail.

There would be binding at the end to stop it unlaying, and is usually a double knot each side at the top to stop it pulling through the sail - at the top of the dangly bit - do I need to draw you a picture?


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: Charley Noble
Date: 12 Jul 13 - 08:58 AM

I always considered "reef-tackle fall" one of those cleverly camouflaged terms for "balls," which Hugill resorted to in order to get Shanties of the Seven Seas published.

Of course, a "reef tackle" is a real nautical term, the "fall" simply being the line that one hauled on. Knowing this would be of marginal use in undressing lovely Sally or her Sailortown sisters.

Cheerily,
Charley Noble


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: Rumncoke
Date: 12 Jul 13 - 10:58 AM

I always thought that it was her lily white hand falling on his reef tackle - the term is is not reef tackle fall, just reef tackle.

If you'd ever idly watched the reef tackle flapping about in the wind you'd have no trouble in making the connection with another dangly bit.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: Gibb Sahib
Date: 12 Jul 13 - 07:14 PM

I am so over double-entendre. To the max.

Must be an English thing, these reef tackles and topsails and dangly bits. In America we just have tits, dicks, cocks, balls, wangs, wieners, etc.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: 'topsails all a quiver'
From: Lighter
Date: 12 Jul 13 - 08:07 PM

John H. Harland, "Seamanship in the Age of Sail" (1984), p. 83:

"The clewlines shared a quarter block with the topgallant sheets, and sometimes the reef tackle fall, multiplying the trouble if the strop of this block carried away."

To "strop a block" doesn't appear in the song, but secondarily it meant meant to dip the wick.


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