Friday, 23 September 2011

A Watchet Sailor

I recently spent a happy 3 weeks holidaying in Watchet on the Somerset coast. The small harbour town's development was tied up with the import and export of minerals, particularly iron ore from the neighbouring Brendon Hills. Earlier it had hosted a Saxon mint which was plundered by the Vikings, and there are a couple of good local legends around the church and the big local landowners.
For anyone interested in folk song and its collection in England, Watchet means shanties. It was the home of the remarkable singer John Short (1839-1933). Between April and September 1914 Short sang 57 songs, most of them shanties, to Cecil Sharp. He was the main contributor to Sharp's English Folk-Chanteys, providing 43 of its 60 songs.
Short had started work in the local coastal trade at the age of 14, but in 1857 moved onto deep-sea vessels. For the next 50 years he worked at sea, eventually moving back into the coastal trade. His time on the Union ship the Levant, running the Civil War blockade under a British flag of convenience, earned him the enduring nickname 'Yankee Jack'. When he finally came ashore, to look after his ailing wife, he worked in Watchet harbour.
He heard his first shanty, Cheerily Man, on his first deepwater trip. Thereafter he made a point of trying to pick up a new shanty on every new vessel, which may explain some of the range of his repertoire. This is also worth noting when we think about traditional singers' active pursuit and preservation of songs. Short was a fine melismatic singer, as the notation of a complex piece like Carry Him to the Burying Ground reveals. In his later years Short served as Watchet's town crier. The town still has a crier, but I doubt that he could share John Short's boast that his voice could be heard for 2 miles with the right wind.
What is striking in Watchet is how far Short's fame within the folk revivals has intersected with his local celebrity. There is a statue of him in the centre of the Esplanade overlooking the harbour. (I do not particularly like Alan Herriot's statue, although I prefer it to his other local statue of the Ancient Mariner). Short's former residence is marked with a slate plaque.
Some of this may reflect the interest of folk song collectors (Sharp's picture can also be found on local information boards), but that is not quite the whole story. The town's good Boat Museum has a range of Bridgwater 'flatners', local boats built for inland work along the coast. These are now making a comeback as leisure vessels, and the museum has a nice recent example named after Short. The impression is of a celebrated local figure who has also become known to the outside world through his very specific talents. These reflect on and augment his local standing.
That is both charming and appropriate. In Watchet we get a real sense of a singer as a person, and of his repertoire as reflecting that person's enthusiasm and activity. There has been a healthy push towards such an approach when thinking about folk song (1), but Watchet's relationship with John Short gave me the fullest sense of how this might work.
It was appropriate, then, that in the Watchet Town Museum I picked up the first volume in a projected 3-CD set of all John Short's songs. Short Sharp Shanties Vol. 1 was put together under the auspices of Tom and Barbara Brown. They have brought together an eclectic group of lead singers, each of whom was given free rein with the arrangement of their songs.
The result is a diverse collection that highlights the move from shanties as historical worksongs to their current presentation as social and performance pieces. One of my big dislikes of shanty sessions is their lack of variety. That is not the case here. There are some more 'traditional' representations of shanties as worksongs, but Short's musicality is given full credit both in straightforward hauling shanties like Shallow Brown (and I warm more and more to Jim Mageean's singing) and in Carry Him to the Burying Ground. Sam Lee's singing of the latter is assured and complex, but I do not find his reading of songs yet as compelling or convincing as, say, Jackie Oates's fine take on Fire! Fire! here. Jeff Warner's banjo points to the breadth of Short's musical adventuring. I'm a big fan of Jeff Warner, and particularly enjoyed his warm and delicate Won't You Go My Way? (He touches on John Short's repertoire on his new solo album, too). At its best, this CD points to the same tendency seen in Watchet: these songs are part of a man's life, and are part of how he lived that life. In celebrating the songs, we have to celebrate the singer.
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1: See, for example, the article on Short in Still Growing: English Traditional Songs and Singers from the Cecil Sharp Collection, ed. Steve Roud, Eddie Upton and Malcolm Taylor (London: English Folk Dance and Song Society, 2003), pp. 79-80.

1 comment:

  1. 'In celebrating the songs, we have to celebrate the singer.' I've been disappointed lately to find how little those who have been busy restoring Bob Roberts barge Cambria seem to be interested in the songs old Bob sang - so I have to agree. But there's also the point that we have to make songs our own or they will stagnate... So there's an interesting tension! Gav