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The Greenland Whale Fishery | Folk from the Attic

Last updated on December 26, 2018

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Fresh from my Steve Roud interview, having learnt that the folk singer is an entirely modern construct, today I found myself itching to get my guitar out and dive into an old sea shanty. Let’s be clear, though: while this is some kind of performance of ‘The Greenland Whale Fishery’, it doesn’t in any way bear any resemblance to the original ‘Greenland Whale Fishery’ [Roud 347]. Nor can I claim to be a folk singer. In fact, it’s probably best that you – the reader – limit yourself to thinking that this isn’t really a performance at all. More a murmuring. Possibly an accident. I don’t think you’ll find that too difficult. 

Right then. Silliness aside, what do we have here? ‘The Greenland Whale Fishery’ first made itself known to me, as it must have done with many people, via The Watersons’ Travelling for a Living (a screenshot from which you’ll find as the featured image at the top of this page). I’ve spent silly amounts of time reviewing those precious few moments that find Mike Waterson and Louis Killen, apparently lost for anything better to do, singing this song in the Maritime Museum in Hull. They hope to find inspiration in among the whaling artefacts, but instead inspire the viewer with their innocence and excitement as they realise that they both know this song, albeit in very different regional versions. For folk fans who get real kicks out of seeing how traditional songs travelled (and I include myself very firmly in that number), it’s a moment of genuine magic.

The clip mentioned above doesn’t exist on Youtube, so I’ve posted an alternative clip below featuring The Watersons, Louis Killen and Anne Briggs discussing folk singing. I place this here simply to encourage readers who haven’t seen the film to sit down and watch it. A little piece of history.

‘The Greenland Whale Fishery’ – a little history

In terms of the history of this song, A L Lloyd made claims that it had appeared on a broadside in 1725. Steve Roud, however, dates it to about 1820, noting in his marvellous book, The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songsthat:

“Of several songs about whaling, [‘The Greenland Whale Fishery’] was easily the most widely known, and the one which lasted in traditional singers’ repertoires.”

Rather excitingly, given the distance in time that we now stand from the earliest documentation of this song, there is even evidence that it was sung and enjoyed on the whaling ships themselves (rather than remaining on land in pub singalongs). Roud continues:

“We have evidence that it appealed to at least two real whalers, as copies were found in the journals of the ships Bengal from Salem, in 1833, and Euphrasia from New Bedford, in 1849.”

The song details a journey into the Greenland whale fishery – i.e., the area near Greenland where whaling was, at that time, bountiful. While it depicts a fairly run-of-the-mill tragedy, the version that I picked up from The Watersons has that essential political twist common to many powerful folk songs, provoking indignation as the callous, money-driven captain watches his crew lose their lives while bitterly mourning the loss of his prey.

The ever-reliable lists any number of recordings of ‘The Greenland Whale Fishery’, starting with A L Lloyd’s version for an album called The Singing Sailor, which he made with Ewan MacColl and Harry H Corbett. MacColl later sang three verses for the 1962 film, Whaler Out of New Bedford. The Watersons’ recording appeared on at least six albums, while other performers of note include Van Dyke Parks (Rogue’s Gallery, 2006), Jon Boden (part of his Folk Song a Day series) and The Pogues, who recorded a version for their 1984 album, Red Roses for Me

‘The Greenland Whale Fishery’ lyrics

The version that Steve Roud records in The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs has all of thirteen verses. That’s a heck lot of words to learn and a heck of a lot to demand of the listener. So, for this blog at least, I’ve taken much of The Watersons’ version – a mere six verses – and thrown in an approximation of the final verse from the A L Lloyd version. I say ‘approximation’ simply because the words I’ve used are all that came to me in the moment, and while they’re vaguely the same, they’ve clearly changed a bit. I apologise if they’ve lost any of the impact. Such is the way of the folk song.

They took us jolly sailor lads
Fishing for the whale
On the fourth day of August in 1864
Bound for Greenland we set sail

Well, the lookout stood on the crosstrees high
A spyglass in his hand
“There’s a whale, there’s a whale, there’s a whalefish,” he cried
And she blows on every span

Well, the captain stood on the quarterdeck
And a sod of a man was he
“Overhaul, overhaul, let your davit tackles fall
And we’ll put our boats to sea”

We struck that whale and the line played out
But she made a flurry of her tail
And our boats capsized, we lost seven of our men
But we never caught that whale

The losing of seven fine sea men
Well it grieved that captain sore
But the losing of that bloody sperm whale
Oh it grieved him 10 times more

Well, Greenland is a distant place
Where our fishing lads must go
Where the cold winds blow and the whales must go
Where it’s only ice and snow

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One Comment

  1. Richard Mellish Richard Mellish

    The “essential political twist” where the captain is more concerned about losing the whale than losing some of his men, was probably created by Bert Lloyd. Does anyone know of a version with that feature prior to Bert’s involvement?
    And BTW thanks for the video link.

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