February 26, 2011

Way Hay And Up She Rises: The 5 Best Celtic Songs About Sailing And The Sea

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Over the centuries, hundreds of Celtic songs have emerged that focus on the joys and heartaches of sailing and living life out on the open ocean. As with my post, The 6 Best Celtic Songs About Boston, I decided not to rank these Celtic songs numerically.  Instead, I've organized them according to theme and lyrical content. Please let me know of any other great Celtic seafaring songs in the comments section below.

Drunken Sailor  The Drinking Song

Drunken Sailor is a capstan sea chantey. Sailors would traditionally stomp their feet in time with the song as they pushed the levers of a ship's capstan round and round, weighing anchor or hauling heavy sails in the process. All of the verses of Drunken Sailor are a response to the question, "What do you do -- or what shall we do -- with a drunken sailor?" Examples can include, "put him in bed with the captain's daughter," "put him in a longboat until he's sober," and everyone's favorite, "shave his belly with a rusty razor." It is theorized that the melody of Drunken Sailor evolved from the Gaelic-language song, Oró Sé do Bheatha 'Bhaile. 

Chords & Lyrics
Further Reading: BBC: Sea Shanties, The Mudcat Cafe: Oro Se Do Bheatha Bhaile
The Irish Rover  Hyperbole On The High Seas

The Clancy Brothers (Pat, Liam and Tom) and Tommy Makem collectively copyrighted their adaptation and arrangement of The Irish Rover in 1962. However, despite what you may have heard, they did not compose the song: the lyrics have traditional origins and the melody likely stems from a 19th-century Irish tune. The Irish Rover follows a rag-tag crew -- including "Johnny McGuirk who was scared stiff of work," and "Slugger O'Toole who was drunk as a rule," -- as they sail for New York aboard the cargo ship, The Irish Rover. Sickness and stormy seas eventually claim the lives of all on-board, with the exception of the song's narrator. Some of the ship's mythical cargo included "five million hogs, six million dogs," and "Seven million barrels of porter."

Chords & Lyrics
Further Reading: The Mudcat Cafe: Irish Rover, The Session: Irish Rover

Back Home In Derry  The Voyager's Lament

In comparison to The Irish Rover,  Back Home In Derry has a tone that is much more somber. Instead of following a crew that is sailing joyously to New York, the song follows a group of prisoners being transported, amongst miserable conditions, to an Australian penal colony. The IRA activist and hunger-striker Bobby Sands penned the words to Back Home In Derry -- in a poem called "The Voyage" -- while in prison just prior to his death in 1981. Christy Moore added a chorus to the lyrics and borrowed the melody of Gordon Lightfoot's song, The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald, to form the finalized version of Back Home In Derry we know today.
Chords & Lyrics 
Further Reading: The Mudcate Cafe: Edmund Fitzgerald / Back Home In Derry, 3 Pints Gone: Back Home In Derry

Barrett's Privateers  A Canadian Maritimes Masterpiece

Canadian folk musician Stan Rogers wrote Barrett's Privateers in 1976 because his musician buddies would never give him the chance to sing lead in the sea chanteys they performed. Like The Irish Rover, Barrett's Privateers is sung from the view point of a sole survivor of a mythical, ill-fated ship, which in this case is The Antelope. Like Drunken Sailor, the song features call and response. Refrains include "how I wish I was in Sherbrooke now!," and "God damn them all!" Unfortunately, while all of the songs on this list can be considered yarns, Barrett's Privateers has one particularly glaring, historical inaccuracy: the town of Sherbrooke, Nova Scotia -- a focal point of the song -- was not known as Sherbrooke until the 19th century. The song takes place in the 18th century.

Chords & Lyrics
Further Reading: The Mudcat Cafe: Barrett's Privateers

The Downeaster "Alexa"  The Fishing Song

Alright, I know what you're thinking: Billy Joel is not a Celtic musician. And since Billy Joel wrote The Downeaster "Alexa," there's no way that The Downeaster "Alexa" is a Celtic song. Well you may be right, and of course, I may be crazy, but I implore you to listen to Phil Beer's version of the song (above) and reconsider your position. The song has something distinctively Celtic about it. Like The Irish Rover, the song features no clear-cut chorus, but is a sea of verses punctuated by the occasional refrain of the ship's name, which in this case is the Alexa. To dispel any confusion, downeaster is not part of the ship's name, but refers to the type of ship: a down east workboat. Such boats have hybrid planing and v-shaped hull deigns.

Chords & Lyrics
Further Reading: Ohio State University: Downeaster Alexa: A Fishery Story

Lyrical Time-line:
  • 1778: The Antelope sets sail from Nova Scotia in search of "American gold"
  • 1803: Unnamed ship departs from Derry, Ireland "for Australia bound"
  • 1806: The Irish Rover sets sail from the "coal quay of Cork", Ireland for New York

Runners Up:
  • Farewell to Nova Scotia (traditional)
  • The Craic Was 90 In The Isle of Man (Barney Rush)
  • The Mermaid (traditional)
  • Paddy's Green Shamrock Shore (traditional)
  • Thousands Are Sailing (Phil Chevron of the Pogues) 

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