Sounds of the sea

The Leaving of Liverpool is a traditional seafaring song which became a folk revival standard thanks to Ewan MacColl. Here’s Joe and Peter (unfortunately we don’t know their full names) belting it out at Jacqui and Bridie’s folk club in Liverpool. The gig was recorded by Stan Mason who recorded lots of folk and world music performances in Cheshire and Liverpool in the 1960s and 1970s. If you recognise one of the voices please let us know!

The Leaving of Liverpool (MASON/59)

Ivan Fryman, a Lancashire singer, is most often found singing about the mill or the pit. Here is his version of Row Bullies Row, which is a traditional song about an unlucky sailor on a Liverpool ship bound for America. This song also went mainstream in the folk revival when Ewan MacColl released it in the late 1950s.

Row Bullies Row

And here is Ewan MacColl himself introducing and singing another traditional song, Greenland Bound. This was also recorded by Stan Mason – this time at the Silverman Hall in Nelson, Lancashire, in 1971. We recently digitised Stan’s collection for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage. The quality of the recordings is not always the best but they really do capture the atmosphere of the scene.

The Guyanese-Canadian singer David Campbell was recorded by Stan Mason performing at Jacqui and Bridie’s Coach House club in Liverpool. Here he is introducing the Newfoundland folk song I’se the b’y that builds the boat. He explains that while the melody might have travelled across the Atlantic from Scotland, the words are very distinctly Canadian.

Back on our side of the Atlantic, Jeremy Taylor wrote the Donkey’s Charter song in homage to the great Lancashire banjo player George Formby. It’s full of terrible puns on ‘ass’, of course! Stan Mason recorded the gig somewhere in Lancashire in 1975.

Lawrence Clifford was interviewed by the Bolton Oral History Project in 1981 about his memories of the beach entertainment in Blackpool. His father could take the family of five for a week’s holiday for a fiver! (BOLTONOH/11 download)

The folk music collector Paul Graney seems to have taken his reel-to-reel recorded to the Whitby folk festival several times in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We have a number of tapes where Paul has recorded gigs and also the sounds he heard out and about around the town. Here’s a little mashup of a brass band, a fish market, the sounds of the sea and the seagulls and a Morris band dancing. (Whitby mashup download)

Paul interviews an old fisherman on the harbourside who was born in 1882. Paul’s al fresco interview style works really well – the man is able to point out the size or shape of boats for comparison and the seagull cries really add to the atmosphere. He is speaking about growing up with the stories of the Eyemouth disaster the year before he was born when 189 men from all over the north east died on fishing boats off the east coast, 129 of them from the small Scottish fishing town of Eyemouth. (GRANEY/758 download)

The man explains that one of his father’s Scottish friends had the motto afterwards that ‘One fool made many’ – one fisherman went out on that fair morning, and unfortunately many more followed him to their death. Paul starts his questioning by asking about the ‘Yarmouth’ disaster. The effect is that the fisherman has to tell the whole story and presume no knowledge on Paul’s part. Who knows if Paul does this on purpose, or simply gets the name of the disaster wrong, but it works.

The song Three Score and Ten was first published as a broadside ballad issued to raise funds for families bereaved by the disaster. It recalls the seventy men lost in the Eyemouth disaster from the large fishing town Grimsby. Not a protest song, then, but a song of memorial and reparation. Apparently the song was picked up in the mid-twentieth century when the folk group the Watersons heard it sung in Whitby. Here is their version of it. Like Paul, I can’t help thinking what it might have been like for this old man to listen to the ‘new’ folk music telling stories from his childhood. Here’s the Watersons version.

A life at sea could be unpredictable and take you to some exotic places. Tom O’Brien, interviewed for the Sellafield Stories project in 2010, remembers learning Danish when working on fishing boats, and spending some time as a skipper in on the Grand Canal in Venice during the Second World War! (SS/69 download)

Tom O’Brien transcript, 26 July 2010 (ref SS/69)

Far away from the sea, this woman worked at the fishmarkets in Manchester. She was interviewed by Eric Purnell on the BBC Radio Manchester programme Voice in the Crowd in the early 1970s. She describes how difficult it can be working in cold conditions with frozen fish.

But it was a friendly place and there was time for fun too. She remembers funny incidents when drunks and dogs were let loose on the market!

We’re going to finish up where we started – on the Liverpool docks with the singers Joe and Peter. This is a song protesting about the ‘decasualisation’ of dock work in the port, where free labourers became employees of dock companies. The docker explains that his grandfather and dad were both dockers but that he would wring his son’s neck if he signed up for the same career.



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