I’ve been feeling a bit under the weather for the past couple of months and it’s saying something that I’m longing for warmer weather. Normally it’s the opposite and I take pride in the Bostonian knack of toughing out the cold that I seem to have picked up through osmosis but whenever the first 70° days of the year come I crumble. Everyone out walking and exercising, enjoying themselves in public breathing a sigh of relief is a great pleasure I take from life. It’s in this state that I’ve found myself looking for something new music wise but in trying to quantify what I wanted out of it I hit a bit of a wall. I found myself not necessarily reaching for technical qualities or genre tropes but much more of a feeling that I was looking to be conveyed. The most succinct way I can convey this is “Old or Faded Glory” or rather an attitude of “What could’ve been.” Perhaps it’s relevant to the previous year’s toll but this has led me to appreciate certain styles of music more than I maybe did before especially country music, and sea shanties. I’m going to go genre by genre and explain my newfound thoughts on them:
I was always peripherally aware of country music but I never really got the appeal until July of 2020 when Lily and I executed a rather harebrained caper to go camping on Independence Day. Naturally, in the middle of a pandemic there wasn’t too much else to do for the residents around rural New Hampshire but to go to our favorite camping locale and snap up all the spots before we got there. While a little annoyed at the let down we were quite happy listening to the most ‘murican country music possible and that’s when I heard “It’s America” by Rodney Atkins. This jaunty number not only showed off the phenomenal musicianship of his session band but it also made me understand a bit more about what country was all about. It was tough to explain but it really solidified all the good things about my American citizenship, which I confess was never really in touch with like my United Kingdom citizenship. From there I explored Darius Rucker, John Denver, Rascal Flatts, and even some country-Indie fusion bands like Andrew Jackson Jihad and the Mountain Goats.
The most surprising find was a song called “Daddy Lessons” by Beoyncé that is sort of a pop/New Orleans/country fusion that I wouldn’t have found were it not for my day job. I highly recommend checking this one out if you have the time.
As for sea shanties I was well acquainted with them before they gained popularity on the Chinese data collection mole everyone willingly has on their phones… Oh wait… Tik Tok, that’s the name! What the gain in popularity got me to do was inspire me learn a few more of them and do some more research around them. Prior to this if you asked me for a sea shanty I probably could’ve given you Spanish Ladies, and naturally Drunken Sailor as well. But Santiana, Haul on the Bowline, and naturally Haul ‘er Away have all become fast favorites.
The thing that I learned that most surprised me in my research was that there is a delineation between a sea shanty and a song of the sea. The shanty is fundamentally a work song and much like work songs from African slaves they are designed with a repetitive strenuous action in mind. Sometimes the noise this action makes is an integral part to the music such as hammers clinking on rocks or ropes stretching taught but there are many different shanties for many different types of work onboard the ship. They’re messy, they’re antiphonal, they’re easily learned, and not particularly produced or rehearsed by the crew. A good way of thinking of them is a hack for human behavior to make a repetitive task tolerable by anyone regardless of musical education whether cultural or formal.
Songs of the sea on the other hand are more for entertainment purposes whether after the work is done or for landlubbers who want a taste of the sea without falling in so to speak. Songs like The Wellerman, Spanish Ladies, Leave her Johnny, Northwest Passage, Banks of Newfoundland, and Cross the bar fall into this category and these are the songs that acapella groups tend to gravitate towards. Naturally there’s overlap between these two categories but there are a couple of obvious signposts like the poetic prosody of the lyrics synchronizing with a work cadence, shorter times between call and response, steadiness of rhythm, and harmonic complexity. Both are fun to sing absentmindedly while doing chores or other dull moments where not much is going on.
Conclusively, I feel like my life is more full now that I have unlocked an appreciation of these genres and I’m glad I was able to find some time to go down this rabbit hole. Makes me want to cook over a campfire and drink some bulliet bourbon really. Defiantly an event on the cards soon.