Land Shanties – Nova Scotia, Canada

Land Shanties
Nova Scotia, Canada

In this Installment:
Land Shanties (or “A Sailor Ain’t a Sailor”) – Tuning Clayton’s Guitar

A sailor can sleep anywhere – no sound of wind, water, wood or iron can keep him awake

Richard Dana, Two Years Before the Mast

I met Duncan in Scotland earlier this summer (2000). He said he had been in the British Merchant Navy for 30 years, so I asked him about the shanties he must have sung while he worked. He looked at me like I was from another planet and wondered out loud what I read that gave me such a strange idea. (Actually he said, “What book have you been reading full of that kind of shite?”). They never sang as they worked, he said, they were too busy hauling and grunting. Of course, he added, once they had been paid off and had hit the bars they would sing “some real beauties!” Sadly, he wouldn’t sing any of these for me, perhaps because it was a Sunday in a very religious town.

I had Duncan in the back of my mind as I boarded the tall ship Rose a month later for a high seas-classroom and work experience, co-sponsored by the Boston University History department. Our schedule had us sailing up the coast to Nova Scotia, learning both the general shape of Atlantic maritime history between 1400 and 1900, and the realities of life on the kind of sailing ship that was the reality for that history’s participants. As a long-time fan of shanties I was dearly hoping that Duncan’s version of maritime culture was off.

In those two weeks at sea we learned to steer, to keep watch, which ropes (excuse me, we call them “lines”) do what, and how to make sure we’re about to haul for all we’re worth on the correct one. Unfortunately, you can’t hear the commands called out by the mates when you’re singing, so the first order of any sail evolution or capstan turning was to be quiet. So Duncan was right about not singing to help the work go. Fortunately, he was also right about the bars.

The Rose‘s sturdy Boatswain – Hank – turned out to be a fellow shanty enthusiast, and Tim asked him if he would lead an informal class in Shanties. I like to think he thought of this while the three of us were aloft on the foretopsail and I joined Hank on a verse of “Paddy Doyle”, though he probably had the idea in mind back when he was planning the course. Either way, Hank agreed and in our last harbor in Nova Scotia, we took over most of a bar for the “class”. While some played pool the rest of us bellowed shanties. When someone turned on the stereo, we sang louder.

After several hours at The Fo’c’s’le (I wonder how many dozen Nova Scotian bars have this name) our numbers slowly filtered out, and the bar closed up, leaving the few hangers-on drunk, happy, and outside in a town with nothing open but the sidewalk. There was some plotting over finding and pulling down a suitable souvenir for the Rose with some drunk fellows, and then I headed back to the ship to relax and sleep a little before my watch, and dawn. It was around 2:30am. As I approached the dock I heard a very loud and very out of tune guitar being strummed from up ahead.

There, in the shadow of the ship’s bow was a small fishing boat with a middle aged, drunk fisherman on board singing Elvis Presley songs as if his audience was trying to listen from a half-mile away. I winced at how out of tune his guitar was, and also at how close he was to the Rose – right next to the area that housed the forwardmost sleeping compartment. So far on the voyage I had slept soundly through bright lights and through the rolling of the boat in heavy weather, but despite Dana’s maxim on the ability of a sailor to sleep through anything, I wondered how well the hull would stop loud music on an otherwise silent night. I hoped to soon be unconscious in a bunk (excuse me, we call them “racks”) on the other side of the hull from this man, and imagined myself and my fellows tossing as he crooned “Love Me Tender” with a volume and a confidence that outbalanced his drunken talent. I changed course and headed for his boat.

Clayton turned out to be a good man and a real character. He had been across Mahone Bay at the annual wooden boat festival for the day (he said he had sung there, but it wasn’t clear if he was a performer, or simply a boat enthusiast who pulled out a guitar and serenaded those within earshot), and was now back in his usual harbor to relax a little before getting some sleep and heading out to fish at dawn.

He said he might have gone to a cottage that he keeps to sleep, but that some young “hooligans” had robbed his boat the last time he had left it alone at that dock, so he was staying on board this night. The bottle helped him relax, and the guitar helped him pass the time while he helped himself to the bottle. That was enough talking for the moment, and he launched, full force into more Elvis songs. At the next break I got him talking again, and asked if I might play him a song. He handed over the guitar (I had already declined his offer of the bottle) and I quickly started tuning it. I had no idea what I was going to play; I really just wanted the music that would certainly continue after I left to be less disturbingly out of tune.

I talked (excuse me, we call it “stalling”) as I tuned, and tried to think of a song that might get him onto quieter selections. I played “I Ride an Old Paint”, a cowboy song with the same sort of wide open spaces feel that he put into everything he played, but with more of a quiet, end of the day air to it. When I finished, we talked more while he took another pull on the cigarette I had bummed for him and then I gave him back the guitar. My strategy wasn’t a complete success, but when he resumed he was playing old country songs, and it was definitely quieter.

In retrospect, I realize that I shouldn’t have worried about the noise. The sleeping compartments were below the waterline and nothing but the annoyingly familiar “Everybody up…Muster at the capstan!” could penetrate our brains when we set ourselves to sleeping. That call would begin our next day at 5:30 and the conversation with Clayton had me awake and basically sober for my fast approaching 3 o’clock watch.

We talked a little more and I listened to him complain about how the bigger, louder boats scared off the fish and left a thin trail of oil slicked across the water in their wake. And then it was time for me to relieve the watch. He was playing “Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone” as I left, with a smouldering cigarette pinned below the strings by the tuning pegs, a broad smile, and his hand strumming away with that broad, loose motion that he adapted to the tempo of every song he played.

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