The Longest Johns – Between Wind and Water, (6/19/18). Written in Salt (6/5/18), Bones in the Ocean (5/27/13), Christmas at Sea (12/2/13): ****½
If you trace music back to its original sources, you would likely arrive at form of human expression intended for survival rather than merriment. Indeed, the discovery of the potency of song, or even tone, as a spiritual resource must have been as significant as the wielding of stone weapons. After all, the inveterate human foes are less about tooth, claw, and the snarl in the night than dispirited passivity, fear, and loneliness. As we prune back the ramifying branches of musical evolution, we arrive to a forked tap-root, which might (with a bit of imagination) reveal the simultaneous discovery of music by Woman and Man. Imagine: the man comes home to his cave and hears for the first time the beautiful lilting sound of the melody from the back chamber. He peers in, finding woman and child in peaceful repose. He listens, pierced to the heart, at once aware of the voice as a thing of beauty, even as he is chastened with the knowledge that the gift is not for him but rather for the little squaller.
But the next morning, after complimenting his mate on her musical invention, he proudly boasts of his own musical discovery. It went like this: They were hard pressed, up against it in wind, fog, and darkness. But then they began to chant together—simple words really—with a goofy little guy singing harmony and one pounding on a piece of wood. Misery, fear, and heavy-lifting had nearly broken them, but suddenly they knew they could make it through, and indeed, in retrospect the whole thing was a ripping good time. “What do you call this music?” asks the lullabyist. “We call it Sea Shanty,” He replies. Of course, he probably should have chosen the more correct and universal category Work Song, but perhaps he had an inkling that the work song would rise to its highest levels only when humans contended in earnest with that majestic adversary, The Sea.
Maritime ways are no more, and it is the sea that is in peril nowadays. However, the sea-shanty survives and has made something of a comeback. As a genre, it is a treasure house of good tales, limited in theme, perhaps, but filled with adventures, perils, and thrilling deeds. In its essential simplicity, it resists the enticements of pop-music embellishments. At most a single guitar and some stomping or a violin are added to the robust a cappella singing. The best ensembles exude confidence that their antique art form packs a wallop and needs nothing but the heartfelt dedication to belting it out straight. All the better, though, when a group can sing competent harmony and carefully selects the best tunes. A little theatricality helps too.
This takes us to a couple of recordings that those interested in the genre ought explore. First, one could hardly do better than to catch the exciting group led by Norwegian fiddler, Bjarte Eike, called the Barrokksolistene. This ensemble strives to bring ale-house conviviality to both a 17th- century English baroque and traditional folk-material. Their 2016 recording, Ale House Sessions, was one of the most entertaining releases of the year and merited the rare 5-star review on these pages.
Featured on this mostly fiddling record are three sea-shanties which demonstrate the versatility of this group. The traditional Haul-Away Joe, replete with grunts and ale-house banter, is a show-stopping hoot. It captures all the best of the genre.Then comes political commentary: Old Charlie got his head cut off and it spoiled his constitution. And finally, we get bawdily misconstrued advice from mother:
When I was a little lad or so my mother told me [Haul away etc…] That if I did not kiss the gals, Me lips would all grow moldy. Way, haul away, we’ll haul away, Joe! Of course, the song’s chorus “We haul away, we haul for better weather” reminds us that this is music for pulling through the hard business of life–the prospect of joy sharpened by the persistence of misery. The other two shanties on the album are nearly as good. A bass and a violin add potent support to the pitch-perfect if playfully erratic singing.
I recently discovered a Bristol based group that is reviving this genre to great acclaim: The Longest Johns.
Surveying four releases, Between Wind and Water, Christmas At Sea, Written in Salt, Bones in the Ocean, I have been enthralled at the purity of their folk music, a cappella prowess. Harmonies are well-wrought, voices of the most pleasing sonics, and a majestic bass supporting things from below who can rattle the floorboards. In the most recent release, a female member adds a honeyed mezzo to the mix.
For those curious about individual tracks, I can recommend Off to Sea from the most recent Between Wind and Water. A gentle waltz with guitar accompaniment, it treats the ageless tale of the man who goes to sea after making the kinds of youthful decisions that would put a drunken rascal behind the eight-ball. Things don’t improve on the ship, of course, which lives up to the bidefinition of Samuel Johnson’s, “A prison with a good chance of drowning.” Nevertheless, when the harmony joins in on “a man must be blind, to make up his mind to go to sea once more,” the tale takes on a ravishing sense of inevitable suffering that holds all of us in its grip. Sugar in the Hold Below takes us toward Caribbean, where the sweetness of the cargo is played off against the bitterness of hard work. Wood Pile has men toiling with lumber, slaving away so they can spend their wages on pretty Georgia girls. They rock the “rolling the woodpile” with gusto. Land or sea, work stalks these men with a vengeance. Only five voices serve to shake a collective fist at the hard earth. Mingulay Boat Song has the lull of a hymn. The heaving and ho-ing is drowsy, more like the rocking of a babe in arms. The whole album is first-rate and a fine point of entry for The Longest Johns.
Alternatively, one could start from the first release, Christmas at Sea. The title track is brisk, foot-stomping ballad of cold water and harsh winds. A rendition of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen is a couple of ticks faster on the metronome than normal and handsomely harmonized.
Written in Salt contains the typical fare. Milkmaids, pirates, a curse and a Randy-Dandy-O. But it is the last track which gets to the existential core of the matter. “What shall we do with a drunken sailor (three times) Early in the morning.” This album even has a purely instrumental piece with competent but unremarkable pluckings on mandolin and banjo.
Bones in the Ocean, from the album of the same name, has much-sobered up mariners contemplating their final journey. The sweetness of the singing, and especially the thrumming bass, connect this piece to a tradition of folk and choral singing beyond the sea- shanty genre.
Oh, I bid farewell to the port and the land
And I paddle away from brave England’s white sands
To search for my long ago forgotten friends
To search for the place I hear all sailers end
As the souls of the dead fill the space of my mind
I’ll search without sleeping ’till peace I can find
I fear not the weather, I fear not the sea
I remember the fallen, do they think of me?
When their bones in the ocean forever will be
Plot a course thro’ the night to a place I once knew
To a place where my hope died along with my crew
So I swallow my grief and face life’s final test
To find promise of peace and the solace of rest
As the songs of the dead fill the space of my ears
Their laughter like children, their beckoning cheers
The Longest Johns, not alone among modern Sea-Shanty a cappella groups, Rant and Roar (Bucket of Guts, 2006 is stupendous) live up to their inspired name, but they are probably the foremost practitioners of the art. I can highly recommend them on a cold winter’s night, on one side a tot of rum and the other a stack of good reading material of the Horatio Hornblower sort. Those of exacting tastes in choral singing will likely be impressed by the skill of the part singing, while audiophiles will be pleased with the outstanding sonics.
More information at The Longest Johns website: