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Ship Ahoy! Songs of the Sea

Ship Ahoy! Songs of the Sea

  • By The Chris McDonald Jazz Orchestra
  • Release 08/07/2014
  • Media Format CD
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Price: €24.56

Product Notes

The question isn't 'Why make this album?' but 'Why wasn't it made long ago?' All the music comes from the first half of the 20th century and is quite accessible. And what fine poetry has been set! Eight of the songs were set to verses by longtime Poet Laureate, John Masefield, six were set to the well-respected nautical poet, Cicely Fox Smith, and five belong to Sir Henry Newbolt, the popular poet of 'Vitaï Lampada' (and favorite poet of Admiral John McGee, the fictional father of Timothy McGee on the television show, NCIS - see Season 10, Episode 19, "Squall"). The composers featured here include faculty members of the Royal Accademy of Music (Michael Head and Frederick Keel), and The Royal College of Music (Charles Stanford, John Ireland, and Armstrong Gibbs). However, a life in the world of music academia does not necessarily correspond to progressive ideas of composition, and the harmonic vocabulary displayed in this program is conservative. And that opens up a wider audience to the music in question. The art song aficionado may very well not be alone in showing an interest in this album. There is plenty of folk music influence to be found here. Although one may find a little harmonic complexity underlying the verses, all of the music is tonal with memorable melodies. And much of it is just plain fun. Of course, John Ireland's 'Sea Fever' is a staple of English-speaking baritones and basses everywhere, and Charles Stanford's Songs of the Sea is certainly well represented in the CD catalogue. Even Frederick Keel's first set of Salt-Water Ballads and Armstrong Gibbs' fun little cycle, Songs of the Mad Sea Captain (with verses taken from an adventure tale for youngsters, Bernard Martin's Red Treasure), have a couple of recordings to choose from, so is this just another singer's interpretation of a well represented canon of sea songs? The short answer is no; a noticeable contribution to the mix has been made with the two additional sets that are found in this album. The significant number of sea songs in the above-mentioned canon makes the absence of Michael Head's Six Sea Songs a mystery; there is plenty of interest in maritime numbers within the world of the British art song and his work is not unknown. Maybe availing the general public of a recording of Head's cycle is as good a raison d'être for this recording as any. The first of the Six Sea Songs, 'A Sea Burthen,' paints a picture of a harbor with ships swinging with the tide while the seamen drink and sing at a tavern. As the piano plays, one can even feel the rocking of the ships. It would be difficult to name a composer who could paint with music any more effectively than Michael Head. The song is mesmerizing. The second number, 'Limehouse Reach,' has a sailor who has lost his love to a lighterman telling his tale (a lighter is a barge for loading and unloading the ships, allowing her new lover to stick around rather than spending his time at sea); the sailor states with his final goodbye that "a feller's a fool to die for love," which he's not about to do because "there are girls as smart in every port." But he "would have loved [her] so." The composer dedicated the song to his mother, and it is the piece most often pulled from the set and performed separately. In the next song, 'Back to Hilo,' an old salt reminisces about a Peruvian watering hole that he misses - he has nothing good to say about the place, or it's keeper, or the women there - but he still wishes he was back in that "dark an' dirty wineshop" "drinking old Jacinto's wine." A leisurely tango rhythm provides a latin feel, but the singer has chosen to mispronounce Jacinto's name to remind us that the seaman is neither latin or learned under the assumption that both poet and composer would have agreed. Following "Hilo" comes the lively tune, 'A Dog's Life,' which describes a sailor, Bill, who is tired of the hard work and the poor conditions for very little pay, and who has for twenty years been threatening to quit the next time he's ashore. But when sailing day arrives, Bill is back on board growling about a sailor's life all over again. The fifth song of the set, 'Lavender Pond,' describes a place devoid of flowers or picturesque vegetation, a manmade timber pond located almost directly across the river Thames from Limehouse Basin. And yet there is beauty seen in the coming and going of old wood cape horners as well as rusted metal tramps, both of which are being crooned to by crying seagulls, sobbing wind, and "sighing" water. An interesting sidebar: ships no longer had access to Lavender Pond by the time Michael Head wrote the music and eventually the pond was filled in. Today in the same spot a smaller Lavender Pond has been excavated and turned into a nature reserve. In the final song of the set, 'Sweethearts and Wives,' a mariner is found bragging about his past love life: the 'gals' at Seaton Sluice, Montreal, Tonger, Taltal, and Melbourne that he gave up because he felt that it was time to settle down, which, he explains, is why he "married a widder in Monkeytown." And what about his old lovers? He claims that he hopes 'they're all married and 'appy like [him]." But how 'appy is he? Could it be that he feels trapped in this new way of life? Each listener must decide for himself what he hears in the minstrel's voice because the singer isn't telling. Within these six songs, the poet Cicely Fox Smith and composer Michael Head have provided an impressive combination of pathos and humor. Yes, this is a set of songs that was begging to be recorded as the complete cycle that was published in 1949. And now it has been. The other set in this program missing from the catalogue of available recordings is Frederick Keel's second group of Masefield's Salt-Water Ballads. It is much like his first - spirited and tuneful. The similarity might be why it has been ignored for so long, but a good tune is always welcome, and these are fun pieces worth a listen. Baritone singer and song composer Frederick Keel was honorary editor of the Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society until his incarceration in the Ruhleben civilian POW camp in 1914, and the folk influence works well for his songs. Just as a footnote, the Jan mentioned near the end of the last song in the set is none other than the poet John Masefield himself. Jan was his nickname, later reserved only for family and close friends (see Philip W. Errington's third note for "Cape Horn Gospel I," from his edition of selected Masefield works, Spunyarn: Sea Poetry and Prose). So, if you are looking for chanties, you will need to check elsewhere. But if you would like to hear the best of the twentieth century British maritime song cycles presented in their entirety, this is the CD you have been waiting for. Enjoy!


Title: Ship Ahoy! Songs of the Sea
Release Date: 08/07/2014
Label: CD Baby
Media Format: CD
UPC: 700261407692
Item #: 1271287X
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