Tuesday, July 31, 2007

7 Means of Movement: Railroading

Jimmy Giuffre Trio, The Train and the River.
Joni Mitchell, Just Like This Train.
Ken Boothe, The Train Is Coming.

As the train skirted close in, the trees leveled out and he could see within the woodland the only place he had been truly intimate with in his wanderings, a green world shot through with weird light and strange bird cries, muffled in silence that made the privacy so complete his inmost self had no shame of anything he thought there, and it eased the body-shaking beat of his ambitions. Then he thought of here and now and for the thousandth time wondered why they had come so far and for what...Sometimes Roy had his doubts. Sometimes he wanted to turn around and go back home, where he could at least predict what tomorrow would be like.

At once there was this beaten gold, snow-capped mountain in the distance, and on the plain several miles from its base lay a small city gleaming in the rays of the declining sun. Approaching it, the train slowly pulled to a stop.

Eddie woke with a jump and stared out the window.
"Oh oh, trouble, we never stop here."

Bernard Malamud, The Natural.

A train is an unlikely figure for romance, no? It rattles, shudders and wheezes like a valetudinarian; in its early years, a train would be littered with cinders and stink of smoke, and even today train cars often carry a stale, burnt odor; it rarely leaves on time, and often breaks down; it trundles through harsh sections of towns, generally taking the tradesman’s entrance whenever entering a city.

Yet the world, for more than a hundred years, was in love with it: the train meant escape, power and freedom (recall the lines from "Folsom Prison Blues," when Johnny Cash is tortured by just the thought of a train rolling past his cell), yet it also was an agent of community, peopling cities, stitching together nations. For many people, the train was modernity: to see the world judder by from your window seat, or even just to watch a train roll past you, imposing itself upon the horizon, was to live in a time your ancestors could not have conceived. The train has never lost its promise of grand potential.

Hopper, Chair Car.

Train reverie: "The Train and the River" is by the Jimmy Giuffre Trio, which consisted of Giuffre, who played baritone sax, tenor sax and clarinet, Jim Atlas on bass and Jim Hall on guitar. "Train and the River" was recorded as part of the CBS TV special, "The Sound of Jazz", which was also the last appearance together of Billie Holiday and Lester Young. Recorded 5 December 1957 in New York; on The Sound of Jazz. Here's the live broadcast; here's another version (with a trombonist, Bob Brookmeyer, replacing Atlas) from the 1958 Newport festival, which became the opening sequence of Jazz On a Summer's Day.

Train travelogue: "Just Like This Train," which has one of Joni Mitchell's most clever and evocative lyrics: as the singer endures a long, strange, chaotic train trip, she projects her life upon its walls and hears herself in the weary way it brakes; it's on 1974's Court and Spark.

Train spiritual: Ken Boothe's "The Train is Coming," from 1967, doesn't specify where the train is going--all that matters is the fact of its arrival. Boothe sings reassuringly and with grace, but it's clear he's going to be on the train when it leaves, whether you are or not. On The Bunny 'Striker' Lee Story.

The Morning of the First Engineer (in America)

Trevithick's circular railway, ca. 1810.

It is odd to think that fate has earmarked this hot Saturday morning in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, in August 1829. A market-day crowd gathers near the canal, jostling to see the barge now nudging upstream. A group of men, mainly shopkeepers and farmers, stand in a loose knot arguing about President Jackson, some using folded newspapers to fan themselves. It's going to be a brutal day--the canal already shimmers with heat. The barge slows. Murmurs, whistles, there it is, look there now. Laughs, too: the object of the hour appears to be a boiler attached to a set of wheels, and painted on the boiler's convex endpiece is a great red lion's head.

The Delaware & Hudson Canal Company has hired a young man, recently graduated from Columbia College, to test the oddity. He stands canalside, dressed like a parson, giving orders, some heeded, some cast aside by the team of workmen who surge around him. With a wheeze, the boiler is hauled off the barge; it dangles for a minute over the canal. A recalcitrant mule, sensing it is bearing its obsolescence, refuses to budge, until the teamsman flails its back with a whip. The ropes tauten, and the boiler is slowly hoisted over a set of iron tracks that lie parallel to the canal, tracks that extend straight for six hundred feet, then curve over a trestle built over the Lackawaxen Creek and run out into the woods for a few miles.

The boiler lands with a gentle thud upon the tracks. The young man argues with some Scotsmen, while a grandee from the Delaware & Hudson Co. talks loudly to no one in particular. Minutes drift, a half hour expires. The shopkeepers and farmers move to a nearby field, where they have set up a cannon, a relic of the War of 1812, to commemorate the event. After some fussing, they begin firing off rounds, setting the babies in the crowd to wailing. Then the cannon backfires and explodes, ripping apart the arm of the man standing next to it.

The young man is busy preparing the engine, watching as the pair of Scotsmen stoke the fire, checks that the steam is rising. His name is Horatio Allen, and the winter before he had sailed to Britain on behest of the Delaware & Hudson, to see the metal horses being run up in the North of England, and to buy one or three.

The Tom Thumb, 1830.

By 1829, the idea of steam-powered locomotive trains had been around for decades, and the concept of a railroad is actually centuries-old, though the manual railroads of Europe were essentially more efficient wagonways, with carts hauled over rails by oxen or mules. The invention of the steam engine, followed by Richard Trevithick's steam-driven tramway locomotive, first used in 1804, and the various innovations of George Stephenson meant that by the time Horatio Allen sailed to Britain, there were workable steam locomotive engines for sale. Allen bought three, two from Stephenson (which wound up being shipped to a New York warehouse and were eventually lost) and one built by John Rastrick, in Stourbridge, which went to Honesdale.

The Stourbridge Lion

Back in the Honesdale morning, Allen gallantly asks everyone to stand back from the boiler. He mounts the platform attached to it, grasps the throttle. He considers whether to start slowly or to roar off, considers that he might die in a moment, and so approaches death in style. He yanks the throttle down, the engine seethes, the machine jolts forward. Within a few seconds, Allen is over the creek, and he rolls along the tracks as the woods rush towards him. The crowd noise wanes. He rides into the woods until he reaches the end of the track, its terminus a thick axe-scarred pine that a workman couldn't fell. He looks up at the vague trace of sky visible beyond the summer-flush elms, savors the coolness still granted to the woods this morning. Then he puts the machine in reverse, and rolls back out.

Allen has become the first locomotive engineer in American history (and the first brakeman, passenger and conductor), and he never will run a locomotive engine again, though he lived to be 97 and spent much of his life on the railroads. Some fifty years later, Allen returned to Honesdale and walked one morning along the path where the tracks once were.

His engine, the Stourbridge Lion, is run a few more times, but the Delaware & Hudson directors aren't impressed with it. So the engine is run off the tracks and left by the side of the canal. It stands there for fourteen years, picked apart by souvenir hunters, rusted by the rains, until it is hauled to a repair shop, used to supply steam to a new stationary engine, then thrown in the scrap heap.

When You Hear The Whistle Blowin' Eight To the Bar

Josh White, No. 12 Train.
Paul Whiteman, Choo Choo.
Arthur Honegger, Pacific 231.

I worked out a few themes, but just at this time I had to appear in Boston...It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-bang that is so often stimulating to the composer (I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise), that I suddenly heard - even saw on paper - the complete construction of the Rhapsody from beginning to end.

George Gershwin, on the composition of "Rhapsody In Blue."

Each form of transportation has its own music, whether the pulsebeat of walking or the shaky waltz of a cruising ship. But the sound of the train--the brisk shuffle beat, a metal roar, crescendo and diminuendo, accompanied by rattle and clatter percussion, interspersed with whistle solos--was something utterly new, and it captivated musicians and composers immediately.

Philip Pacey's amazing site attempts to list every reference to the railroads in classical and popular music--to take 19th Century classical music alone, there's Meineke's Rail Road March, written to mark the appearance of the first passenger train in the U.S., or Johann Strauss' Railway Delight, which opened and closed with a whistle, or Berlioz's Le Chant des Chemins de Fer, or Rossini's Un Petit Train de Plaisir (Rossini hated the railroads, and so he depicted a train wreck and the passengers floating off to heaven, where presumably there are no trains).

Monet, Gare St. Lazare

And, of course, the train became the great reoccurring image of folk, blues and country songs, metaphor of metaphors, serving as the embodiment of hope, deliverance, despair, loneliness, triumph.

Three musical train evocations--one blues, one jazz, one orchestral:

The bluesman Josh White creates the sound of a train at full throttle simply through six guitar strings. "Number 12 Train" comes from a session White did for Moses Asch in 1944 that produced Folk Songs Sung By Josh White, a set of three 78 rpm records. On Free and Equal Blues.

Paul Whiteman’s “Choo Choo” is one of the first jazz records to evoke a train ride, laying the tracks for Duke Ellington compositions like "Daybreak Express." Written by Frank Trumbauer and Matty Malneck, a forgotten but influential figure in American music who deserves far more recognition. Recorded 25 July 1930; on Best of the Big Bands.

Freight train coming through outskirts of Dakar, Senegal, 1992.

And the Swiss-French composer Arthur Honegger's train study, Pacific 231, was written in 1923--it sets off with an opening whistle conveyed by the upper strings and woodwinds. Honegger, in a bit of a paradox, makes the "train" speed up by actually slowing the tempo, until the brakes are hit and the piece resolves into a final chord. This version was performed by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, with Takuo Yuasa conducting; recorded in Wellington, New Zealand, on 23-25 January 2002; find here.

After World War II, the French composer Pierre Schaeffer took the next natural step in train sound composition: actually recording trains and using edited tape loops of the noises as the composition itself, such as 1948's Etude aux Chemins de Fer, which is based on recordings Schaeffer made at the Gare des Batignolles in Paris, with six engine drivers "improvising" for him, or so he said. A sample can be heard on this site.

Why Riding Trains With Cowboys Is a Dangerous, Dirty Business

Gunfights were common. We dreaded trips on cattle trains that included two or more different outfits. On such trains, the crews prudently stayed out of the caboose. Fights and gunfights started over trivial or fancied insults.

One fight that left our caboose a total wreck started when a cowboy remarked, "I don't like to play cards with a dirty deck." One of the rival outfit understood him to say "dirty neck." This man had been forced to make the trip without an opportunity to clean up, and he resented the implication that his neck was dirty.

When the struggle had finally quieted and the smoke cleared away, three cowboys were badly wounded. The fourth got his neck washed by the coroner.

Harry French, to Chauncey Del French, Railroadman, 1938.

Days of Steam

William Grayson and Henry Whitter, Train 45.
Tarheel Slim, Number Nine Train.
Big Joe Turner, Midnight Special Train.
Jackie Mittoo, Train to Skaville.
Uncle Dave Macon, Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train.
Vernon Dalhart, Wreck of the Old 97.
Johnny Cash, Wreck of the Old 97.
The Kinks, Last of the Steam-Powered Trains.

A little group of people who had settled about a mile out of Medford [Massachusetts] waited upon Superintendent Minot one day with a request that he stop the train at their settlement. He refused, thinking the venture would not pay, but they persisted in their demand and declared they would make him stop his train whether he wanted to or not.

Next day, as we began to climb a heavy grade just outside Medford, the wheels of the engine slipped. After a moment or two, we came to a full stop where several of the settlers were standing. They jumped aboard while the engineer got out to investigate the cause of our delay. He found that the track had been smeared with molasses.

Charles George, Forty Years on the Rail, 1887.

Have you ever played the board game Ticket to Ride? It is relatively simple: you begin with an empty map of the United States and Canada (or Europe, if you're playing there), and then draw cards that give you goals (e.g., link Vancouver with Houston, or New York with San Diego). Then, slowly and painstakingly, you build railroads across the country, trying to block or avoid your competitors, trying to link both ends of the country in a single, unbroken line.

This is essentially how the American railroad system developed from 1850 on, with pauses for various financial panics and the Civil War, during which most of the Confederacy's railways were destroyed (so the railroad kings got to build them again).

The railroads were never the province of a handful of dreamers, inventors and explorers. Instead they were, from their very beginnings, the product of great government largesse, lobbyists, venture capital, stock frauds, exploited illegal immigrant labor, greased palms, cheated Indians. The railroads first took root in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, as a way for ambitious cities like Baltimore to compete with the canal shipping traffic of rival ports. Then, by 1870, with the creation of the first trans-continental railroad, a web of railways began to extend across the expanses of the West.

Imagine the train as a sort of amoral demigod, thundering into unclaimed territories, bearing all forms of pestilence, human and animal, along with the U.S. Mail, and leaving behind a series of telegraph wires, saloons, jerry-built towns and eventually Congressmen.

Kandinsky, Murnau-View With Railroad and Castle.

Here are a host of railroad songs, some of which hail from the train's formative years, some not:

Henry Whitter, born near Galax, Virginia, wasn't the most talented player to come from that bluegrass-mad town, but he was one of the more ambitious, traveling up to New York on his own dime and hustling for recording contracts. Things finally broke his way when he teamed up with the blind fiddler William "G.B." Grayson--the pair made dozens of records between 1927 and 1929. "Train 45" was their most popular side, selling 50,000 copies in 1927 alone. Recorded in October 1927; on The Recordings.

Pity the poor station master's daughter

Tarheel Slim was born Alden "Allen" Bunn in 1924. He began performing as a member of several gospel groups in the '40s, including the Southern Harmonaires and the Selah Jubilee Singers, and went secular fairly quickly afterward, first with the Los Angeles-based Larks, a vocal group, then with an R&B group called the Wheels. By the late '50s, Bunn had become known as Tarheel Slim, as one half of a group called the Lovers (the other half was his wife, Anna Lee Sanford). In the '60s, Slim cut soul and electric blues records, and had he not died in 1977, he probably would've started rapping.

"Number Nine Train," Slim's sidetrack into rockabilly, featuring a vicious lead guitar by Jimmy Spruill, was released as Fury 1016 c/w "Lion Tamer" in 1959; on The Red Robin and Fire Years.

Feininger, Old Locomotive.

Big Joe Turner's "Midnight Special Train" is officially credited to "Gerald and Nugetre," which were Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun's pseudonyms. And "Midnight Special Train" is robbery in broad daylight, with Wexler and Ertegun wholly plundering Leadbelly's "Midnight Special," cherry-picking lines from a number of standard blues lyrics, and then stamping a copyright on the whole mess. That said, it's a still a swinging track, with probably Turner's last great vocal, and you have to admire the chutzpah of it all.

Recorded in New York on 20 November 1956; on The Very Best.

Jackie Mittoo and Roland Alphonso had been part of the Skatalites, and after that group broke up in 1965, they formed The Soul Brothers, which soon became the house band at Studio One, serving as the bedrock of a host of ska and rocksteady records. Mittoo also had a sting of hit singles to his name, one being "Train to Skaville."

On Last Train to Skaville.

As the train glided out of the station Theodoric's nervous imagination accused himself of exhaling a weak odour of stable-yard, and possibly of displaying a mouldy straw or two on his usually well-brushed garments. Fortunately the only other occupant of the compartment, a lady of about the same age as himself, seemed inclined for slumber rather than scrutiny; the train was not due to stop till the terminus was reached, in about an hour's time, and the carriage was of the old-fashioned sort, that held no communication with a corridor, therefore no further travelling companions were likely to intrude on Theodoric's semi-privacy.

And yet the train had scarcely attained its normal speed before he became reluctantly but vividly aware that he was not alone with the slumbering lady; he was not even alone in his own clothes. A warm, creeping movement over his flesh betrayed the unwelcome and highly resented presence, unseen but poignant, of a strayed mouse, that had evidently dashed into its present retreat during the episode of the pony harnessing.

Saki, "The Mouse."

Crash on the Berlin Overhead Railway, 1908.

Trains often wrecked, especially in the early decades of the railroads, whether by hitting cows, running off rails or just exploding. But unlike other transportation disaster songs, like the great doom-laden body of shipwreck ballads, songs about train wrecks tend toward the heroic, celebrating the engineer's prowess, marveling at his catastrophe.

Train wreck, metaphorical: Uncle Dave Macon's "Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train," from 1930, refers to a contemporary scandal involving Tennessee governor Henry Horton and Nashville businessman Rogers Caldwell. Horton, via an unsavory character named Henry Lea, had okayed state funds being placed in stocks owned by Caldwell, who was getting state commissions without having to bid for them. Eventually the Caldwell businesses went bust, costing Tennessee $6 million ($68 million in today's dollars) at the height of the Depression. Macon's take on the scandal is about as close as American music came to Trinidadian topical calypso:

Well the engineer pulled the throttle
Conductor rang the bell
The brakeman hollered, 'all aboard'
And the banks all went to hell.

Recorded in Jackson, Miss., with Sam McGee on banjo guitar, 17 December 1930. On this soon-to-be-released new reissue from Smithsonian Folkways.

"death and destruction on the rocks below"

Train wreck, historical/mythical: The Old 97, an engine owned by the Southern Railroad, wrecked near Danville, Va., in September 1903, plunging off a 75-foot-high trestle, killing nine men. The Old 97's new engineer was named Joseph Broady. Running behind schedule, Broady decided not to cut speed as the train was hurtling downhill, which proved to be a deadly mistake, and, as the song written about the Old 97 describes it, Broady was found in the wreckage, his body scalded by steam, one hand still on the throttle.

Not long afterward, a Virginia yardman named David Graves George, who said he had actually seen the wreckage of the Old 97, wrote a poem about the wreck and put it to the melody of Henry Clay Work's "Ship That Never Returned," a Civil War-era ballad. He performed the song to a group of friends at a local barbershop. Or maybe he didn't. Fred Jackson Lewey, whose cousin allegedly was a fireman on the Old 97, claimed that he, along with Charles Noell, wrote "Wreck of the Old 97." And as the song spread across the country over the next two decades, it kept acquiring composers, including one F. Wallace Rega and Henry Whitter, who was credited as a co-composer for his 1923 recording of "Wreck of the Old 97."

Vernon Dalhart, having heard the Whitter record, made a version the following year that became an enormous seller for Victor Records, and so set off a number of tangled copyright lawsuits, to the point where the whole mess resembled Jarndyce and Jarndyce. The case, which went to the Supreme Court, was never resolved to anyone's satisfaction. Well, except Victor, which allegedly made more than $2 million from record sales and royalties.

Dalhart's version, with Carson Robison on guitar, was recorded in New York on 13 August 1924 and released as Victor 19427; on East Virginia Blues.

Johnny Cash's take was recorded in Memphis on 1 July 1957; on With His Hot & Blue Guitar. Much more information about the byzantine history of "Old 97" in this paper by Alfred Scott.

Last steam locomotive built for the Newfoundland Railway, scrapped in 1957

In May 1934, at the opening of the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago, two petroleum-fueled passenger trains, the first of their kind, were rolled out to a cheering crowd. It was the beginning of the end of the steam age. A year later, diesel-electric locomotives began running on the Baltimore & Ohio, and, after a pause for World War II, the transformation of the U.S. railroad industry was completed by the end of the '50s.

In Britain, steam-powered trains endured a bit longer, in part because of cheap, locally-mined coal. But by 1968, when Ray Davies wrote "Last of the Steam-Powered Trains," the steam locomotive was nearly a memory. Davies considered the steam train's demise as one of the many casualties of the modern age, along with billiard games, virginity and brass bands. Recorded in London in October 1968 and released a month later on Village Green Preservation Society.

Strict Time

Pete Murray, On the 5:15.
The Who, 5:15.
Sheena Easton, 9 to 5 (Morning Train).

The train, unlike any other type of transportation before it, ran on a minute-by-minute schedule mapped out weeks or months in advance. For the first time, you could say you would arrive somewhere at exactly fifteen minutes past the hour. The downside was that people (most notably, bosses) began to expect you to be there at fifteen minutes past the hour.

The harried life of the train commuter, someone as tied to a train schedule as they were to a marriage or mortgage, was well established by the beginning of the 2oth Century. "On the 5:15," from 1915, was one of the first songs to address commuting, its miseries, and its alleviating graces (getting drunk when you miss your train, mainly). Though the recording is in pretty rough shape, take a listen, as the story--in which a man misses his train, gets drunk, gets taken to divorce court--is too good to simply summarize.

Of Pete Murray, who sang this track, I know nothing--he's so anonymous a figure that he's often confused with Billy Murray, the ubiquitous pop star of the first two decades of the past century. Released as Edison Blue Amberol 2561; available at the UCSB Cylinder Preservation site.

The Who's "5:15", from 1973's Quadrophenia, finds its Mod hero strung out on pills, hallucinating and raving on the train out to Brighton.

Sheena Easton's first hit single, "9 to 5," was changed to "Morning Train" in the U.S., so as not to confuse listeners with the recent Dolly Parton smash. The two records couldn't be further apart: where Parton sings about fighting for dignity in the workplace, Easton is either a kept woman or a pampered, slightly psychotic housewife lolling around the suburbs all day, desperately waiting for her man. Still, Easton, whose desperate search for a hit was depicted in the early British reality TV show The Big Time, sings the hell out of the song, going for broke toward the end, as the robotic Manhattan Transfer-esque backing vocals shuffle her along. On Greatest Hits.

Castes (from Conductors to Spike Drivers)

Mississippi John Hurt, Spike Driver Blues.
Chuck Berry, Let It Rock.
The Kentucky Ramblers, The Unfortunate Brakeman.
R.E.M., Driver 8.
The Carter Family, Engine 143.
Furry Lewis, Kassie Jones.
Clefs of Lavender Hill, Stop-Get a Ticket.
The Move, Wave Your Flag and Stop the Train.

An average train company, at least in the first century of railroading, was more hierarchical than the court of Louis XV.

As for the Chinamen, they do for themselves. They are unpleasant and repulsive pagans, but they are not given to rum. They are on hand when they are wanted. They work faithfully and steadily. The delegation from the Union Pacific were specially loud in their praise for the Chinese.

The music of the ready blows of the spike drivers falls deliciously on my ear. The steady advance of the ballasters excites me to lively cheers...

Anonymous newspaper correspondent, Alta California, 1-3 May 1869.

The lowest caste were those who came before the train could even arrive--the track-layers and spike drivers. First, surveyors would map out the route of a prospective railroad, and the contractors followed, purchasing whatever farmland they coveted, by hook or by crook. Once that was taken care of, an army of workers (including large numbers of Chinese and Irish immigrants) laid the tracks, accompanied by tent cities of prostitutes, gamblers, various criminals and bar owners.

John Hurt's "Spike Driver Blues" was recorded 28 December 1928 in New York and released as OKeh 8692 c/w "Blue Harvest Blues." On Avalon Blues.

Chuck Berry's section gang vignette "Let It Rock" is more a showcase for Johnnie Johnson's piano than Berry's guitar. It's one of Berry's lesser known but essential tracks, recorded 27 July 1959 and released as Chess 1747. On Gold.

A brakeman's typical winter

Upon the train itself, the lower classes included the firemen, called "tallow pots" in old railroad slang, whose grim job entailed climbing out onto the moving steam engine with a pitcher of liquid tallow and oiling the valves, as well as endlessly feeding the boiler, chopping wood, shoveling in coal. ("For pure drudgery, low pay, chronic danger and debased social standing, the job of firing a steam locomotive was hard to beat," Richard Reinhardt.)

Another dangerous, low-status job, but one with an element of style, was the brakeman. In the early days, brakemen would ride on top of train cars, skipping from car to car to set handbrakes, linking moving cars together, flagging other trains. They were routinely injured and maimed, and generally died like mayflies. So they lived hard--drinking, whoring, fighting. On their days off, brakemen would saunter into town, wearing new black suits, bell-bottom pants and high-heeled boots.

Herbert Hamblen, as a young man, started out as a brakeman and somehow lived to write his memoirs in the 1890s. After his first day on the job, Hamblen was befriended by a boy his own age, who had been on the railroad for about a year. "He admitted that while the talk about killing and maiming was by no means exaggerated, he hoped to escape that almost universal fate by being careful." A few months later, the boy was blown off the top of a train, his body found a while later completely frozen through.

Hamblen soon got his first true taste of brakeman life:

I was making a coupling one afternoon. I had balanced the pin in the drawhead of the stationary car and was running ahead of the other car, holding up the link. Just before the two cars were to come together, the one behind me left the track, having jumped a frog. Hearing the racket, I sprang to one side, but my toe caught the top of the rail. I was pinned between the corners of the cars as they came together. I heard my ribs cave in like an old box smashed with an ax.

"The Unfortunate Brakeman" is from 1928 and performed by the Kentucky Ramblers; on Early Music of Kentucky.

If the train has any sort of heroic figure, it's the locomotive engineer. In a mode of transportation once renowned for graft, filth, brutality and drudgery, the engineer stood in the popular imagination as a combination of ship captain, mounted knight and general emblem of raw power.

Three engineer songs:

R.E.M.'s "Driver 8" is from 1985. On Fables of the Reconstruction.

"Engine 143" is another train wreck song, centering on the engineer, George Alley, who was running the No. 4 train ("The Fast Flying Vestibule") on the C&O Railroad in October 1890, when the train gruesomely wrecked near Henton, West Virginia. The ballad was allegedly composed by a roundhouse worker from Henton soon afterward. Recorded by Maybelle and Sara Carter on 15 February 1929 in Camden, NJ; on Country and Folk Roots.

And then there's the greatest engineer in legend, John Luther "Casey" Jones. On 30 April 1900, Jones was running the Illinois Central No. 1 when, outside Vaughan, Mississippi, he plowed into a freight train stalled on the main track. While the engine overturned, and Jones was killed (his body found with one hand on the brake, the other on the whistle), the rest of the crew was spared.

Soon afterward, a friend of Jones', an African-American engine wiper named Wallace Saunders, wrote a ballad about him. The song was played in roundhouses along the Illinois Central line, and in 1902, the ballad, re-fitted with a new chorus and a few new lines, was published by T. Lawrence Seibert and Eddie Newton. (Saunders, unsurprisingly, got jack.)

Furry Lewis had lost a leg working on the railroad as a teenager, and so switched to performing music as a secondary career. His version of "Casey Jones" departs from what was becoming the standard folk rendition (probably in part to avoid copyright issues), using only about one verse of the original and then veering off into parts unknown. Recorded in Memphis on 28 August 1928; on Classic Railroad Songs.

Beyond Chicago we were under the protection of a friendly passenger conductor, who knew all about the country to which were were going and gave us a great deal of advice in exchange for our confidence. He seemed to us an experienced and worldly man who had been almost everywhere; in his conversation he threw out lightly the names of distant States and cities. He wore the rings and pins and badges of different fraternal orders to which he belonged. Even his cuff-buttons were engraved with hieroglyphics, and he was more inscribed than an Egyptian obelisk.

Willa Cather, My Antonia.

Finally, the highest caste, the aristocrats of the railroads, was the train conductors, though they were in essence glorified stewards who dressed as if they hailed from some decommissioned branch of the military. In the early days of the railroad, engineers and even firemen yelled "all aboard" and decreed when the doors opened and the train stopped, reducing the conductor to a mere ticket-taker, but in 1842 a conductor named Henry Ayres battled a German engineer named Jacob Hamel for supremacy.

Ayres had wired a bell to the engine cab, which he would pull when he wanted the train to stop, but Hamel kept cutting the cord. At last Ayres walked to the engine, climbed up and punched Hamel so hard that the engineer was knocked to the other side of the cab. After that, Hamel would stop the train whenever Ayres yanked the cord, and the conductors have ruled ever since.

Two frenzied dealings with conductors:

"Stop--Get a Ticket" is by the Clefs of Lavender Hill, which was the brother-sister team of Travis and Coventry Fairchild (whose real names were Joseph and Lorraine Ximenes), along with the brothers Fred and Bill Moss. The pounding handclaps make the track, but I bet whoever did them in the studio had sore palms for days afterward. Released on the local Miami label Thames in April 1966; on Nuggets.

The Move's "Wave Your Flag and Stop the Train," from 1968: The weedy boy is frantically trying to get the conductor's attention--his girlfriend took some really bad acid, and she's been freaking out and trying to throw herself out of the window. Right now she's weeping into her seat, and she doesn't know her name, let alone who her boyfriend is. All the nearby passengers look away in fear or disgust. This track was The Move's self-described attempt to make a Monkees record; on Omnibus.

Don't Forget the Porter

I have been asked quite often who are the best passengers and tippers…there is the working class, who work a year to take a vacation. They have itemized every little detail for the two weeks’ trip, and they never forget the porter. Newlyweds are also good. The groom tips fast and heavy, especially in the presence of the bride, and he is always in her presence.

Baseball players are the limit: most of them are vulgar and uncouth. They tear up the linen, destroy the pillows in battles and many walk out without even saying ‘thanks’ for the service…Among the most generous tippers of today are underworld characters. Drunks were also once among the best, but now, in this age of rotten liquor and bad beer, they’re only good to lose something--a shirt, a suitcase, or a shoe.

H. Nathaniel Hall, (a former porter), 1931.

I must say
Yes, sir,
To you all the time.
Yes, sir!
Yes, sir!
All my days
Climbing up a great big mountain
Of yes, sirs!

Rich old white man
Owns the world.
Gimme yo' shoes
To shine.

Yes, sir!

Langston Hughes, Porter.

The Golden Age

Judy Garland, On The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.
James Brown, Night Train.
Glenn Miller, Chattanooga Choo Choo.
Kraftwerk, Trans-Europe Express.

I lunched in the restaurant car, and drank some vin ordinaire that tasted unexpectedly sour. The carriage felt hotter than ever on my return: and the train more crowded. An elderly man with a straw hat, black gloves, and Assyrian beard had taken my seat. I decided that it would be less trouble, and perhaps cooler, to stand for a time in the corridor.

I wedged myself in by the window between a girl of about fifteen with a look of intense concentration on her pale, angular features, who pressed her face against the glass, and a young soldier with a spectacled, thin countenance, who was angrily explaining some political matter to an enormously fat priest in charge of several small boys. After a while the corridor became fuller than might have been thought possible. I was gradually forced away from the door of the compartment, and found myself unstrategically placed with a leg on either side of a wicker trunk, secured by a strap, the buckle of which ran into my ankle, as the train jolted its way along the line...

At first the wine had a stimulating effect; but this sense of exhilaration began to change after a time to one of heaviness and despair. My head buzzed. The soldier and the priest were definitely having words. The girl forced her nose against the window, making a small circle of steam in front of her face. At last the throbbings in my head became so intense that I made up my mind to eject the man with the beard. After a short preliminary argument in which I pointed out that the seat was a reserved one, and, in general, put my case as well as circumstances and my command of the language would allow, he said briefly: 'Monsieur, vous avez gagné,' and accepted dislodgment with resignation and some dignity.

In the corridor, he moved skilfully past the priest and his boys; and, with uncommon agility for his age and size, climbed on to the wicker trunk, which he reduced almost immediately to a state of complete dissolution: squatting on its ruins reading Le Figaro. He seemed to know the girl, perhaps his daughter, because once he leaned across and pinched the back of her leg and made some remark to her; but she continued to gaze irritably out at the passing landscape, amongst the trees of which an occasional white château stood glittering like a huge birthday cake left out in the woods after a picnic. By the time I reached by destination there could be no doubt whatever that I was feeling more than a little sick.

Anthony Powell, A Question of Upbringing.

In the first half of the 20th Century, or to speak in Hollywood terms, from Twentieth Century to From Russia With Love (with a brief epilogue in the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night, in which a train is a playground populated entirely by pretty girls and old people to be mocked), train travel reached its sophisticated height.

Early passenger train travel was a dire business. The passenger cars often didn't even have roofs, so that blazing cinders would rain down upon travelers, setting coats and umbrellas on fire, while the locomotive was so jerky that passengers were routinely knocked to the floor. In the winter, the cars were glacial; in the summers, broiling.

But by the 1920s, with the advent of air-conditioned sleeper cars, luxurious diner cars and smoother rails, the train was briefly the most glamorous and efficient way to travel in the world.

The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe railroad was one of the largest railroads in the U.S., linking Chicago with the West, down to the Gulf of Mexico and out to San Diego. (Oddly enough, it never directly linked with Santa Fe). Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren wrote "On the Atchison..." for the movie The Harvey Girls, in which it was sung by Judy Garland.

Recorded in LA on 7 September 1945; on Songs From Her Movies.

"Night Train" began as a horn riff, used in Johnny Hodges' 1940 "That's the Blues, Old Man," and also used by Duke Ellington, Hodges' primary employer, in a piece called "Happy-Go-Lucky Local." In 1951, another Ellington sideman, Jimmy Forrest, got an R&B hit by taking the riff, adding a long tenor sax solo, putting it all in front of what Al Pavlow called "a percussive strip joint backbeat," and dubbing it "Night Train."

"Night Train" soon became an R&B cover standard. There were a few sets of lyrics written for it, one in which a man laments his departed woman, another in which a woman is coming back to her man on the night train. But James Brown threw all that out when he took on the song. Instead, he turns "Night Train" into a rolling tour of black America's journey from the South to the North, checking off the stations, from Miami to Raleigh, from Richmond to Boston, while ending with New Orleans, "the home of the blues."

Recorded in Cincinnati on 9 February 1961 and released the next year as King 5614; on 50th Anniversary Collection.

Sheeler, American Landscape.

The Glenn Miller Orchestra's "Chattanooga Choo Choo," from 1941, is train travel so efficient that it seems like a dream. Travel from New York to Baltimore in the time it takes to read a magazine, then have some fresh-cooked ham and eggs while you watch the train gently glide through the South.

Recorded 7 May 1941; on 18 Greatest.

And while the quality of U.S. train travel has greatly declined since the Glenn Miller era (just the idea of riding cross-country on Amtrak sets my body aching), the European and Japanese rail systems keep the dream of civilization alive. The icily serene "Trans-Europe Express" is the title track of the Kraftwerk's 1977 album. With synthesizers serving as train engines, and a lyric featuring the immortal couplet: "Station to station back to Dusseldorf city/Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie."

Sidetrack: Freight Trains

Joe Ely, Boxcars.
Roy Acuff, Freight Train Blues.
Brownie McGhee, Freight Train Blues.

Once, taking a train into Chicago
from the west, I saw a message
scrawled on a wall in the railway yard--
Tommy, call home, we need you--
and for years I have worried, imagining
the worst scenarios. Beneath the message
was a number written in red chalk,
although at eighteen who was I to call
and at forty-five who is left to listen?
But Tommy, I think of him still traveling
out in the country, riding freight car
after freight car, just squeaking by
in pursuit of some private quest.

Stephen Dobyns, "Freight Cars."

Joe Ely's "Boxcars," written by Butch Hancock, one of Ely's former partners in the legendary Flatlanders, is from Honky Tonk Masquerade, from 1978.

Brownie McGhee took "Freight Train Blues," which he recorded in 1959, from a couple of versions--Trixie Smith's 1924 record, and Elizabeth Cotten's. Again on Classic Railroad Songs.

Roy Acuff's "Freight Train Blues" was recorded in Hollywood on 28 January 1947. On The Essential Roy Acuff (which, for whatever reason, includes the false start heard at the beginning of this track)


Lucille Bogan, I Hate That Train Called the M & O.
The Rolling Stones, Love In Vain.
Woodrow Adams, Train Is Comin'.
Gladys Knight and the Pips, Midnight Train to Georgia.
The Delmore Brothers, Don’t You See That Train.
OutKast, The Train.

Train stations always have served as stages for great departures--children leaving parents for the first time, lovers saying their last goodbyes, soldiers shipping off to war, outlaws skipping town before justice comes to them.

Here are a few songs in which the singer is left behind as the train pulls out of the station, or they're on board the train, watching the one they once loved dwindle into the distance.

The magnificent Lucille Bogan was perhaps the dirtiest of the great '20s blues singers (her greatest hits CD still gets an "explicit lyrics" warning sticker). Bogan's "I Hate That Train Called the M & O" was recorded in Chicago on 31 July 1934, and released as ARC 6-02-64; on Black Angel Blues.

Robert Johnson recorded "Love in Vain" in 1936, but the Rolling Stones, who made the song's finest cover version, only discovered the song via a bootleg tape of Johnson tracks, those that had not made the cut for the 1961 Columbia reissue LP King of the Delta Blues Singers. When the bootleg surfaced in 1967 or 1968, with tracks that included "Stop Breakin' Down Blues" and "Ramblin' On My Mind," Keith Richards was stunned. Most of all by "Love in Vain," which the Stones soon turned into a country song. Recorded in London in March 1969; on Let It Bleed. Live performance from 1972 here (for now.)

Woodrow Adams was born in Tchula, Mississippi, in 1917 and was a friend of Howlin' Wolf, Willie Nix and other musicians. Adams was one of the last of the true blues primitives--using a detuned guitar, scraping out sound with his slide playing. "Train is Comin'," a track he recorded for Sam Phillips that was never released, was taped in Memphis on 24 May 1952, with Sylvester Hayes on harmonica and Fiddlin' Joe Martin on rudimentary drums. On Memphis Blues.

"Midnight Train to Georgia" was originally titled "Midnight Plane to Houston," and first recorded by its composer Jim Weatherly, but Gladys Knight and the Pips changed the location to be more resonant and the mode of transportation to be more romantic.

"Midnight Train" is a heartbreaker of a song, with Knight choosing to give up whatever she has in LA to stay with her broken man, who's heading back South, trading in the world of dreams for the world of reassurance and hard limits. Knight's singing on this track really can't be described: it's dignified, tragic, full of weary knowledge yet still hopeful. She says more in her pauses than most vocalists do in words. The fade out, when Knight sings, with all the courage she can muster, "My world, his world/our world, mine and his alone/My world, his world/My man, his girl," still gets to me sometimes. On Gold.

The Delmore Brothers' "Don't You See That Train," recorded 17 February 1936, is on Classic Cuts.

And finally, OutKast's "The Train," from last year's Idlewild.


Bob Dylan, Slow Train (live).
Peggy Lee, Waiting For the Train To Come In.
Jimmie Rodgers, Waiting For a Train.
Brother Williams Memphis Sanctified Singers, I Will Meet You At the Station.

There's a little black train a comin'
Set your business right
There's a little black train a comin'
And it may be here tonight

Go tell that ball room lady
All dressed in the worldly pride
That little black train is comin'
Prepare to take a ride.

"Little Black Train," African-American folk song.

Finally, a quartet of songs in which the train is arriving, and sooner than you might think.

In 1979 and 1980, a born again Bob Dylan embarked on a 'gospel' tour, during which a typical audience exchange went as follows:

Dylan: Satan is called the god of this world. Anyone here who knows that? That's right--he's called the god of this world, and prince of the power of the air.

Someone (likely high) in audience: He sucks!

Dylan: That's right! He does! But anyhow, we know he's been defeated at the cross.

This ripping version of "Slow Train" is from a Toronto concert on 20 April 1980 which ought to be released one day as part of the "Bootleg Series," but probably won't be.

Peggy Lee's "Waiting For the Train to Come In," was one of her first and finest singles, recorded on 30 July 1945. On Best Of.

Jimmy Rodgers' hobo is a thousand miles from home, but he sees a thin trail of smoke in the far distance, and all is well. Does music get better than this? Recorded 22 October 1928; on The Essential.

And finally, "I Will Meet You At the Station" by the Brother Williams Sanctified Singers, from 1930, is one of the most joyous songs I know. First heard this one on Honey Where You Been So Long. On Spreading The Word.

Wave Bye to The Caboose

Sufjan Stevens, One Last Whoo-Hoo For the Pullman.
The O'Jays, Love Train.

In short any stop before the final one creates
Clouds of anxiety, of sad, regretful impatience
With ourselves, our lives, the way we have been dealing
With other people up until now. Why couldn't
We have been more considerate? These figures leaving

The platform or waiting to board the train are my brothers
In a way that really wants to tell me why there is so little
Panic and disorder in the world, and so much unhappiness.

John Ashbery, Melodic Trains.

Tell all the folks in Russia, and China too.

Special thanks: Amy, from Shake Your Fist, who provided a long list of essential train songs. Old Blue Bus also had an excellent train song post a while back.

Stops worth visiting: The Great Machines, Poems and Songs of the American Railroad, ed. Robert Hedin; Richard Reinhardt, Workin' on the Railroad, Reminiscences From the Age of Steam; A Treasury of Railroad Folklore, ed. B.A. Botkin and Alvin F. Harlow; John F. Stover, American Railroads.

RIP: Ingmar Bergman, 1918-2007.

Edited, ten hours later. RIP: Michelangelo Antonioni, 1912-2007.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

7 Means of Movement: Interlude 3, Submarines

Frank C. Stanley, A Hundred Fathoms Deep.
Smog, Bathysphere.
The Freshies, U-Boat.
The Chills, Submarine Bells.
The Sex Pistols, Submission (demo).
Pete Seeger, Submarine Called Thresher.
The Negro Problem, Submarine Down.
The Beatles, Yellow Submarine (alternate mix).

'Ah, commander,' I exclaimed with conviction, 'your Nautilus is truly
a marvelous boat!'

'Yes, professor,' Captain Nemo replied with genuine excitement, 'and I love it as if it were my own flesh and blood! Aboard a conventional ship, facing the ocean's perils, danger lurks everywhere; on the surface of the sea, your chief sensation is the constant feeling of an underlying chasm...but below the waves aboard the Nautilus, your heart never fails you!

There are no structural deformities to worry about, because the double hull of this boat has the rigidity of iron; no rigging to be worn out by rolling and pitching on the waves; no sails for the wind to carry off; no boilers for steam to burst open; no fires to fear, because this submersible is made of sheet iron not wood; no coal to run out of, since electricity is its mechanical force; no collisions to fear, because it navigates the watery deep all by itself; no storms to brave, because just a few meters beneath the waves, it finds absolute tranquility! There, sir. There's the ideal ship!'

Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Spare a thought for the submarine, a boat's dream of escape.

"A Hundred Fathoms Deep" is from 1902 or 1904, sung by one Frank C. Stanley, whose apparent talent was to make his voice sink so low that he may have caused earth tremors. The early 20th Century dearly loved its freakshows and oddities, and this Edison "Gold Moulded Record" provided a fine one.

Smog's "Bathysphere" is from 1995's Wild Love.

Every time there is a disaster we hear on all sides well-meaning people demanding more safety devices and better methods of escape. These demands never come from submariners themselves. A submarine is a war machine, and though reasonable safety devices are essential, and indeed are continually being improved, they must take second place to fighting efficiency...the safest submarine in peacetime (but not in wartime!) would be one that could not dive at all.

Edward Young, One of Our Submarines.

The submarine has its poetic side, as it can plummet through the depths and spy upon a great hidden undersea world, but it primarily has been built for war, used in combat as far back as the U.S. Revolution. At the beginning of the past century, submarines had been considered to be little more than irritations (many top British admirals believed any captured submarine crew should be treated as pirates and hanged), but in the first weeks of World War I, when the German U-9 sank three armored British cruisers and inflicted more casualties than the British had taken during the Battle of Trafalgar, it was clear the submarine had become a first-rate killer, meant for front-line action.

Today the submarine is part of the military elite--floating soundless in the deep, spying and occasionally preying on surface life. As you read this, submarines armed with enough nuclear weaponry to eradicate a good deal of human life on the planet lurk out in the oceans somewhere. The U.S. has scores, as do the Russians, the Israelis may have some, the first in a possible wave of new Chinese nuclear ballistic submarines was just spotted on Google Earth. We live in interesting times.

"U-Boat" is by the Freshies, one of the finer Manchester, UK, bands of the '70s, and perhaps best known for the wonderfully-titled "I'm In Love With The Girl On A Certain Manchester Megastore Checkout Desk." "U-Boat" is off their second Razz EP, Straight In At Number Two, released in June 1979; on Very Very Best Of and Emusic.

The Chills' "Submarine Bells" is from the 1990 LP of the same name.

And the Sex Pistols' "Submission" was, as original band member/eventual pariah Glen Matlock put it, meant to take the piss out of the Pistols' manager, Malcolm McLaren. McLaren, wanting the band to have an 'outrageous' S&M song that would also conveniently promote the bondage gear of his Sex shop, told Matlock and John Lydon to write a song about 'submission'. So they went down to the pub, stewed for a bit, and decided to write the song literally about a sub mission.

This is the original demo, recorded in July 1976; "Submission" would be re-recorded and have some of the charm steamed out of it on Never Mind the Bollocks.

One could not mention the Thresher without observing, in the same breath how utterly final and alone the end is when a ship dies at the bottom of the sea....and what a remarkable specimen of man it must be who accepts such a risk...What is it then, that lures men to careers in which they spend so much of their time in cramped quarters, under great psychological stress, with danger lurking all about them? Togetherness is an overworked term, but in no other branch of our military service is it given such full meaning as in the "silent service".

Dr. Joyce Brothers, 1963.

The USS Thresher, a nuclear submarine "with modern guns and gear," sank in April 1963 during deep-sea diving tests, possibly due to a piping failure. A song about the disaster was dashed out weeks later by Gene Kadish and published in Broadside; Pete Seeger recorded it soon afterward. On the out-of-print Broadside Ballads Vol. 2 (though available on Emusic.)

The Negro Problem's "Submarine Down" is off 1997's Post Minstrel Syndrome, now out of print.

Now, your probly asking well whats outside the submarine? and the answer is more submarines. and inside of those submarines is just a whole nother world, all of earth everything on earth, all the planets. every galaxy every star, everything of matter and non matter, EVERYTHING. and all we are, are just workers on a submarine, sailing in a fleet of submarines.

'follow1yourpath,' poster on the Science Chat Forum boards, 10 April 2007.

Finally, yes, of course, we couldn't avoid "Yellow Submarine." This is an alternate mix from the Revolver sessions, beginning with Ringo walking from John o' Groats to Land's End at the head of a happy army. Recorded in late May-early June 1966; finally released as a b-side on the "Real Love" CD single three decades later.

Monday, July 09, 2007

7 Means of Movement: Sailing

Fairport Convention, A Sailor's Life (alternate take).
Clifford Jenkins, The Sailor's Alphabet.
World Party, Ship of Fools.

As dark night drew on, the sea roughened: larger waves swayed strong against the vessel's side. It was strange to reflect that blackness and water were round us, and to feel the ship ploughing straight on her pathless way, despite noise, billow and rising gale. Articles of furniture began to fall about, and it became needful to lash them to their places; the passengers grew sicker than ever; Miss Fanshawe declared, with groans, that she must die.

'Not just yet, honey', said the stewardess. 'We're just in port.' Accordingly, in another quarter of an hour, a calm fell upon us all; and about midnight the voyage ended.

Charlotte Brontë, Villette.

To walk or to ride is to cast one's lot with the earth, with its rhythms, its reassurances and miseries; to sail is to venture on uncertainty. For a good part of our history, to go to sea was to go outside of time ("the sea is as near we come to another world," Anne Stevenson), take severance from life, to put oneself at the mercy of unknown, awful powers. Sea travel transforms, it embodies the whims of fortune; each trip is a gamble, typically for low, sometimes for great, stakes.

Where to begin with what Swinburne called the great sweet mother? Here are two different tacks:

"The Seafarer" is one of the oldest of English poems; it was first written down in the Exeter Book, circa 900 AD, but it likely circulated years before. Its author is, unsurprisingly, unknown, and one wonders whether the author had been a sailor or perhaps, as many great artists do, simply had the gift of fraud--someone, like Samuel Coleridge when he wrote "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," who had never gone to sea.

The poem is sung by a sailor, one who must keep "the arduous night watch" on deck, where he thinks, bitterly, of those snug on land:

...he who is used to the comforts of life
and, proud and flushed with wine, suffers
little hardship living in the city,
will scarcely believe how I, weary,
have had to make the ocean paths my home...
the prosperous man knows not
what some men endure who tread
the paths of exile to the end of the world...

A half-millennium later, an English/Scottish ballad eventually known as "A Sailor's Life" came into being. Sung throughout Britain's age of sailing, the ballad had fallen into shadow when Fairport Convention revived it for their 1969 album Unhalfbricking.

While the official take attempts to convert the ballad into a raga, with the song based around a drone (primarily carried by Dave Swarbrick's fiddle), there was an earlier take recorded during the album sessions, one that would have been lost had not a fan managed to find an acetate recording of it.

Swarbrick wasn't on this take. The players seem unsure at first: the guitars meander, the bass tries at times to set off on a direction, gets pushed back, the drums roll about in the background. Then Sandy Denny begins with what, at first, sounds like the sentiments of a typical sea shantey:

A sailor's life
It is a merry life...

Then a breath, and then she spits at the notion:

He robs young girls
Of their hearts' delight.

The song coheres, the story that follows is conveyed in jump cuts, in shards. We're on the docks of a seaside village, watching two dozen young men compete (doing what, we're not told--tying knots? climbing masts?) to join a fleet of Navy ships in the harbor. The singer stands in the crowd, prideful--the boy that she loves is a natural sailor, the finest--and already half-knowing her choice has doomed her.

Another jump--some years, some months pass, and she goes to her father and begs him to build her a boat, so she can sail after her lover. An old man works on the beach, wearily hammering together a keel, knowing he's building a coffin for his daughter, while she watches, sitting upon a pile of sea-washed stones. Then, at once, she's out upon the deep, drifting from ship to ship, asking for her William.

It ends as you might expect. Her sailor has drowned off an island that the girl spies from her boat. At once, the perspective changes: much of the story has been conveyed through the girl's eyes, but now we stand on deck with the seafarers who watch as, in despair, she drives her boat against the rocks, joining her lover in oblivion, sinking blissfully beneath the waves.

Then Richard Thompson delivers a requiem. On Watching The Dark.

Hoist the Blue Peter

The Great Eastern, under construction.

They that go down to the sea in ships,
that do business in great waters;
these see the works of the Lord,
and his wonders in the deep.
For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind,
which lifteth up the waves thereof.
They mount up to the heaven,
they go down again to the depths:
their soul is melted because of trouble.
They reel to and fro,
and stagger like a drunken man,
and are at their wit's end.
Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble,
and he bringeth them out of their distresses...

Psalm 107: 23-28.

Traveling by ship, whether over sea, lake or river, is the last of the three ancient modes of transportation--those we have used since the dawn of civilization, those that will be left to us should we ever do anything catastrophic to ourselves.

Sailing at its most basic--shore-hugging by raft, or sailing down river in a sealskin boat--likely antedates the domestication of horses. The Chinese, Indians, Arabs and Malays were among the first sailors, who mastered the seasonal winds of the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific, establishing trade networks, their navigational charts seashells sewn with palm-fibers.

And the master navigators of the ancient world were the Polynesians, who, with the trade winds directly in their faces, built strong canoes and fore-and-aft rigs suited for windward voyaging. Long before most scholars and scientists, Polynesian sailors knew the world was round, and had discovered five planets, using them, along with what they call the fixed stars, as their primary means of navigating. The Polynesians made it to Hawaii, where they cut ocean charts on the shells of round bottle gourds; they may have gone as far as Peru, as Thor Heyderdahl famously argued.

Odysseus' knees grew slack, his heart
sickened, and he said within himself:
'Rag of man that I am, is this the end of me?
I fear the goddess told it all too well--
predicting great adversity at sea
and far from home...
I should have had a soldier's burial
and praise from the Akhaians--not this choking
waiting for me at sea, unmarked and lonely.'

The Odyssey, Book Five.

Roman battleship

Europe had its share of great sailors, such as the Phoenicians, but everyone from the Greeks to the Barbary pirates had to contend with being based on the Mediterranean, a stormy, gluttonous sea that could never be fully relied upon. What is Homer's Odyssey but a depiction of a calamity-plagued twenty-year voyage between Turkey and Greece?

Dropping anchor at Angkor Wat

Beyond the Mediterranean, the Vikings, the first in the North Atlantic to master those grim seas, rose to power, sailing to America and having little use for it. But who first sailed to America from Europe? Tim Severin, a British historian, became convinced that Saint Brendan and a crew of Irish monks had done so sometime in the 6th Century. To test his theory, he had a replica of a 6th Century coracle built--some 36 feet long, with two masts with square sails, its hull covered by oxhide skins, all of it held together with two miles worth of leather thongs.

On 17 May 1976, Severin and four crew members sailed from Ireland and reached Reykjavik two months later. The following summer, they sailed across the Denmark Strait, survived a horrific southwesterly storm that could have driven them into the Arctic, and, six weeks out from Iceland, Severin's crew reached Newfoundland. If the saint had not made the voyage, at least his disciple had.

Oseberg Ship, Norway.

Two more sea overtures:

In the '50s, the archivist Peter Kennedy went around the seaside towns of the British Isles and recorded a number of fishermen--his work captured a waning generation of Edwardian sailors singing shanties, often accompanying themselves on squeeze boxes, with a friend sometimes chiming in on the choruses.

"The Sailor's Alphabet," from anchor to zinc, was recorded ca. 1955 on St. Mary's, the largest of the Isles of Scilly, and performed by a lifeboat fisherman named Clifford Jenkins; it can be found on Sea Songs and Shanties (and eMusic).

The Ship of Fools has its origins in the Middle Ages, when, according to Foucault's Madness and Civilization, a common method for cities like Paris to reduce the population of the insane was to herd them on ships and send them off to sea or down the river. A modern version of this strategy is known as "Greyhound therapy."

In 1494, the German satirist Sebastian Brandt wrote Narenschiff, an allegory in which a boat laden with the insane is steered to the fool's paradise of Narragonia. According to the Oxford Companion to English Literature, "the popularity of the book was largely due to the spirited illustrations, which show a sense of humour that the text lacks." Still, Narenschiff kicked off a wave of 'sailing fools' literature, such as Cock Lovell's Bole, in which a collection of wild tradesmen roam around England.

A latter-day version is on World Party's Private Revolution, released in March 1987.


The Mekons, Shanty.
Bob Roberts, Windy Old Weather.

This morning the wind changed, a little fair. We caught a couple of dolphins and fried them for dinner. They tasted tolerably well. These fishes make a glorious appearance in the water...every one takes notice of the vulgar error of the painters, who always represent this fish monstrously crooked and deformed...the sailors gave me a reason, though a whimsical one, that this most beautiful fish is only to be caught at sea, and that very far to the Southward, they say the painters willfully deform it in their representations, lest pregnant women should long for what it is impossible to procure for them.

Benjamin Franklin, journal of sea voyage, 2 September 1726.

Sea travel, of course, has its trademark music--the shantey, one of the oldest surviving types of work song, meant to be sung in unison, with roaring choruses and filthy lyrics.

Shanties were often work-specific, their timing designed to make sailors move in rhythm--pulling ropes, working pumps, rowing. (Songs for leisure were sometimes known as "forebitters," because they were often sung while the crew was lounging on the 'bits’, the large wooden cleats to which the ropes were tied.)

Shantey lyrics, improvised and rigged to fit whatever job was required--long narratives for tasks like weighing anchor, shorter songs with brief verses for tightening ropes--were often designed to let sailors vent about the petty barbarities they endured. Cooks, captains and the sailors of other nations (for the English, the French and Spanish were prime targets) were set up for vicious abuses. The songs were often led by a shanteyman, picked for his good sense of rhythm and, most importantly, having a voice that could bellow across the decks.

No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned…A man in a jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company.

Samuel Johnson, 1759.

"Shanty," which leads off with the shipping news, is off the Mekons' great 1986 record The Edge of the World.

Bob Roberts, who sings the traditional shantey "Windy Old Weather," was the last of the UK sailing barge skippers, according to Peter Kennedy, who recorded him during the '50s. Again on Sea Songs.

Quests to Cruises

Judy Collins, Bonnie Ship the Diamond.
Bob Dylan and the Band, Bonnie Ship the Diamond.
Frankie Ford, Sea Cruise
Billie Holiday and Her Orchestra, A Sailboat in the Moonlight.
Brian Eno, Julie With...

I have a boat here. It cost me £80 and reduced me to some difficulty in point of money. However, it is swift and beautiful and appears quite a vessel. Williams is captain, and we drive along this delightful bay in the evening wind under the summer moon until earth appears another world. Jane brings her guitar, and if the past and future could be obliterated, the present would content me so well that I could say with Faust to the passing moment, "Remain thou, thou art so beautiful."

Percy Bysshe Shelley, letter to John Gisborne, 18 June 1822. Shelley would drown while sailing twenty days later.

Though sea travel eventually divulged some of its mysteries, with the introduction of the magnetic compass in the 12th Century and the invention of longitude in the 18th, sailing never quite lost its sense of the epic. The great voyages of antiquity were succeeded by trips of discovery and conquest, whether the Portuguese, hugging along the West African coast to the Cape of Good Hope and discovering the trade winds, or Columbus and crew stumbling upon Hispaniola.

Re-enactors rounding Cape Horn, 1991

Or Fernando Magellan, in 1519, who, after making it past Cape Horn, and having a great sense of theater, brought his fleet together and had the one surviving priest (it had already been a rough voyage, and would get worse) stand on the poop deck, holding aloft a crucifix while every sailor bowed. Then Magellan, hoisting aloft a flag that the Emperor Charles had given him, named the new ocean the Mar Pacifico, since its waters were so calm and placid that morning. And then Magellan drowned! (No, seriously, he was just speared to death a few years later.)

In maritime cultures like Britain, Portugal and, later on, New England, sea travel was so entwined with life that the deep seemed a permanent backdrop. As Jonathan Raban wrote of Shakespeare’s works, “the sea exists as a magical realm, a reservoir of glittering hopes and figures, like a mirror image of the triumphant and boundless imagination itself." And the English language is littered with dead nautical phrases. You can likely list dozens--by and large, to keep things above board, to reach the bitter end (referring to the last extremity of the anchor-chain), to be taken aback, to remain aloof (deriving from luffing, when a boat sails hard into the wind to keep away from a lee shore), to bear down, to show your true colors, to toe the line, etc., etc.

First convoy through Suez Canal, 1875.

Think of all the great ships of legend and history, each serving in the imagination as dollhouse empires, floating societies, emblems of war, wandering islands of hope, harbingers of catastrophe--the Argo, the Beagle, the Pequod, the Mayflower, the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria, the Maine, the Endeavor, the Golden Hind, the Flying Dutchman, the Marie Celeste, the Bounty, the Graf Spee, the Achille Lauro, the Exxon Valdez.

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the same horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Before it was captured in a ballad, “Bonnie Ship the Diamond” was an actual ship, a Scottish whaling vessel that was lost at sea, most likely in 1819. (Debate on whether the Diamond was foundered in 1819 or 1830 here.) Like many Scottish and Irish whalers of the time, the ship fished in the Davis Strait, west of Greenland; that's likely where it sank, lost to icebergs.

“Bonnie Ship the Diamond" was revived by a number of folk musicians in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Judy Collins' version is on 1962's Golden Apples of the Sun: the last verse, in which Collins imagines all the village boys returning home in a ship heavy with whale oil, and then making beds and, latterly, cradles rock, is human happiness at its most basic--a lie, as it turns out, but a happy one.

“Bonnie Ship the Diamond” was also one of the first songs Bob Dylan recorded with the Band in the summer of 1967. All that Dylan retains of the standard lyric is the chorus--his Diamond steers past Greenland, heading down past the equator, stopping in Mexico, struggling around Cape Horn, sailing forever, out into the deep. It's one of the unreleased Basement Tapes.

At eight we sailed for Liverpool in the wind and rain. I think it is the salt that makes rain at sea sting so much. There was a good-looking young man on board that got drunk and sung 'I want to go home to Mamma.' I did not look much at the sea: the crests I saw ravelled up by the wind into the air in arching whips and straps of glassy spray and higher broken into clouds of white and blown away. Under the curl shone a bright juice of beautiful green.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, journal entry, 16 August 1873.

Hopper, Groundswell.

Three latter-day excursions, two by sail, one by steamboat:

Frankie Ford's "Sea Cruise,” the greatest piece of New Orleans R&B performed by a white singer, came about when Ford’s vocal was dubbed over a Huey “Piano” Smith track. Smith had recorded the track with his then-lead vocalist, Bobby Marchan, but Smith's label Ace had asked Smith to redub the vocal, since Marchan wanted to go solo and the vocal allegedly wasn't up to scratch anyhow. So they got Ford, who provided a loopy, genius vocal, and added in some effects like a foghorn noise sped up to match the song’s key. Two decades later, the Clash would pillage this track for "Wrong 'Em Boyo." Everyone, now: Oooh-wee, ooh-wee, baby. Released as Ace 554; on tons of compilations, like Let's Have a Rock 'N Roll Party.

Billie Holiday’s "A Sailboat in the Moonlight” is state’s evidence that Holiday and Lester Young at their youthful peaks could turn any trifle into something masterful. Begin with a basic pop song written by one Carmen Lombardo, then watch as Holiday transforms the mediocre lyric, her phrasing making each line dazzle. Young, as her escort, offers an obbligato and then, given a few bars to cut loose, dances with her.

Recorded 15 June 1937, with Buck Clayton (t), Edmond Hall (cl); James Sherman (p); Freddy Green (g); Walter Page (b); Jo Jones (d). On Lady Day.

Brian Eno's "Julie With" is a more ominous pleasure cruise. The details are simple and precise--on a sailboat sitting becalmed on a silent ocean, the narrator watches his companion, Julie, lying face-up on the deck, her hand dipping into the sea. The music ebbs and flows, with keyboard washes, snaps of guitar, reaching no culmination, seeking none. But something seems off--the narrator isn’t disclosing the whole story. Julie could be thirty years old, or five; the narrator may be watching her absently, or he may have just killed her, and the reason “the still sea is darker than before” is because it’s mixing with blood. On 1977's Before and After Science.

The Ship? Great God, Where Is The Ship?

Roxy Music, Whirlwind.
Bessie Smith, Shipwreck Blues.
William and Versey Smith, When That Great Ship Went Down.
The Dixon Brothers, Down With the Old Canoe.
Woody Guthrie, The Sinking of the Reuben James.
Gordon Lightfoot, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The ocean cannot brook the slightest appearance of defiance and has remained the irreconcilable enemy of ships and men ever since ships and men had the unheard-of audacity to go afloat together in the face of his frown...If not always in the hot mood to smash, he is always stealthily ready for a drowning. The most amazing wonder of the deep is its unfathomable cruelty.

Joseph Conrad, The Mirror of the Sea.

Lorrain, The Shipwreck, ca. 1640

Sea travel carries with it the chance of catastrophe, bestowing oblivion or exile through the encounter of a boat and a thirty-foot wave. Is there something especially unnerving about a shipwreck? A ship is our ambassador upon the ocean expanses--its demise shows how weak we truly are in the face of nature. Shipwrecks litter the cultural imagination, whether Odyessus' various troubles, or St. Paul, sailing from Judea to stand trial in Rome, whose boat wrecked on a lee shore near Valletta. Shakespeare's Tempest, in which a shipwreck ultimately restores the fortunes of Miranda and Prospero, or, of course, Robinson Crusoe.

Two days ago I was nearly lost in a Turkish ship of war owing to the ignorance of the captain & crew though the storm was not violent. Fletcher yelled after his wife, the Greeks called on all the saints, the Mussulmen on Alla, the Captain burst into tears & ran below deck telling us to call on God, the sails were split, the mainyard shivered, the wind blowing fresh, the night setting in, & all our chance was to make Corfu which is in possession of the French...I lay down on deck to wait the worst, I have learnt to philosophize on my travels & if I had not, complaint was useless. Luckily the wind abated & only drove us on the coast of Suli on the main land where we landed; but I shall not trust Turkish Sailors in future.

Lord Byron, letter to his mother, 12 November 1809.

"Whirlwind," in which Bryan Ferry stands on the deck in the face of the gale (and looking fabulous), is on Roxy Music's 1975 Siren.

Bessie Smith's "Shipwreck Blues" finds Smith singing about a shipwreck of the soul, a disaster that has only one form of deliverance; it's from one of her last sessions, in which she was backed by a quartet led by the pianist Clarence Williams. Recorded 11 June 1931 and released as Columbia 14663-D; on Empty Bed Blues.

Gericault, Raft of the Medusa.

At one time I saw Scott, standing on the weather rail of the poop, buried to his waist in green sea...over and over again the rail, from the fore-rigging to the main, was covered by a solid sheet of curling water which swept aft and high on the poop. At another time, Bowers and Campbell were standing upon the bridge, and the ship rolled sluggishly over until the lee combings of the main hatch were under the sea. They watched anxiously and slowly she righted herself, but "she won't do that often," said Bowers. As a rule if a ship gets that far over she goes down.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey In the World.

The Titanic, sea trials off Belfast, 1912.

Shine went on the deck, jumped overboard,
waved his ass, begin to swim.
With a thousand millionaires lookin' at him.

Then there is the most famous naval disaster of all, the RMS Titanic's 1912 sinking, immortalized by Leonardo DiCaprio and a host of folk and blues songs, the latter ranging from Blind Willie Johnson's "God Moves On the Water" to Ernest Stoneman's "The Titanic." Here are two more:

One of the first-ever recorded Titanic songs--versions had been circulating since 1914 or 1915-- is "When That Great Ship Went Down," a song emblematic of how many African-Americans viewed the Titanic disaster: since blacks had been barred from sailing on the Titanic, the sinking seemed like a bit of divine justice. (And of course, the Titanic sinking spawned a host of "Shine" (the legendary 'only black man on the Titanic') stories and toasts.)

William and Versey Smith were a husband-and-wife team of street musicians, possibly from the Carolinas (or Texas). They apparently only recorded four songs for Paramount, in Chicago. "Great Ship" was recorded in August 1927 and released as Paramount 12505B. On Anthology of American Folk Music or, cheaper, on Never Let the Same Bee Sting You Twice

And "Down With the Old Canoe," recorded a generation after the sinking, unsparingly states that the pride of man deserved a good dunking in the North Atlantic. The Dixon Brothers were Dorsey and Howard, millworkers from a millworker family in South Carolina, who learned guitar stylings from Jimmy Tarlton and who, by the mid-‘30s, had begun recording for Victor and playing radio shows. After World War II, the brothers went back to the mills, Howard dying on the job in 1960. Recorded in Charlotte, NC, on 25 January 1938; on Vol. 3 1937-38 (and eMusic).

A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.

John A. Shedd, 1928.

Two more recent naval casualties:

The USS Reuben James was the first U.S. Navy ship sunk by the Germans, torpedoed on Halloween night 1941, a month or so before the U.S. entered the war (the ship had been escorting military supplies to the UK). Woody Guthrie, who spent the war as a cook and dishwasher in the merchant marine, recorded "The Sinking of the Reuben James" in 1944; on the Asch Recordings Vol. 1.

And finally, there's the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, the last great shipwreck of the 20th Century. Built in 1957-58 and named after the chairman of Northwest Mutual, the Fitzgerald was the largest ship on the Great Lakes. It was also an accident-prone ship--running aground, hitting lock walls, colliding with other vessels. In November 1975, out on Lake Superior, the ship was caught in an early winter storm and sank to the bottom of the lake, with 29 men aboard.

Gordon Lightfoot's ballad, written and recorded only months after the disaster, is on 1976's Summertime Dream.

Evacuations, Emigrations

Dunkirk, May 1940

Robert Wyatt, Shipbuilding.
The Pogues, Thousands Are Sailing.
Randy Newman, Sail Away.

Ships are the apparatus of desperate mass movements--of a population fleeing disaster, of an army invading or evacuating, of great waves of immigration.

Elvis Costello and Clive Langer wrote "Shipbuilding" during the Falklands War in 1982, which, in retrospect (or even at the time), seemed the last hurrah for the British Empire, and a fleeting hope for the revival of the British shipbuilding industry. Having gone to school in a town whose primary employers were military aircraft and submarine makers, I can attest to the odd, perverse hope that the threat of war will improve the local economy.

Langer had written a tune for Robert Wyatt but was unhappy with the lyric and asked Costello to re-write it; Costello then recorded it himself (with Chet Baker) for his 1983 album Punch the Clock. It's hard to say which is the better version, as both have their qualities (though Costello has admitted he regrets tinkering with Baker's trumpet solo during mixing). For me, the melancholy of Wyatt's vocal makes his take slightly more moving.

Wyatt's "Shipbuilding" was released on an EP, Rough Trade 115T, along with versions of Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight" and Eubie Blake's "Memories of You." On His Greatest Misses.

Years after I moved to New York, I finally made it out to Ellis Island one empty Saturday afternoon. My grandfather had emigrated from Cobh, Ireland, in the mid-1920s, and the family always had assumed he had come through there. So I wandered the halls, through the small rooms once used for medical exams and eye tests; feeling awed that my five-year-old grandfather had once walked there, a speck in a crowd, feeling guilty for having lived such a painless life in comparison. That Christmas, when I saw him and told him I had gone, he looked incredulous. “Ellis Island? Heh?” Turns out he had come into America via Poughkeepsie, or somewhere else he couldn’t even remember.

He died a few years ago: The Pogues' "Thousands Are Sailing," from 1988's If I Should Fall From Grace With God, is for him.

Normandy, June 1944.

"Sail Away" is Randy Newman's satire in which a slaveship captain lures a host of Africans on board for America, promising them earthly bliss, keeping the shackles out of sight. Greil Marcus' chapter on Newman in Mystery Train goes deep into the audacity of the song, which offers a grand delusive dream for a country founded on such dreams; it's a fantasy in which the great blot of slavery is wiped away with a tune that Stephen Foster could have written, all debts forgiven. On 1972's Sail Away.

Sailors On Shore

Fisherman's Group, What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor?
Billy Costello, Popeye the Sailor Man.
Hoagy Carmichael, Barnacle Bill the Sailor.

In 1822, an anonymous pamphlet was published in England entitled "A Statement of Certain Immoral Practices in H.M.'s Navy." The author was a naval officer, the pamphlet was sixty pages long, and its primary concern was the regular practice of bringing prostitutes onto ships in harbor.

It is frequently the case that men take two prostitutes on board at a time, so that sometimes there are more women then men on board. The lower deck is already much crowded by the ship's own company; you may figure...the intolerable confusion and filth...when an addition of as many women as men is made to this crowd. Men and women are turned by hundreds into one large compartment, and in sight and hearing of each other shamelessly and unblushingly couple like dogs.

Both sea captains and shorebound citizens have endlessly worried about the damage a group of sailors can cause when they reach the shore. While a bunch of young men trapped in confined quarters for months on end obviously needed some sort of release valve besides the usual sodomy, there were always complications. In the 17th and 18th Centuries, the problem for the British Navy, for example, was that so many sailors had been impressed into service that captains feared to let them go to land--hence the prostitute delivery service mentioned in the pamphlet above.

It was a problem even the pirates had to contend with--Ching Yih, a Chinese pirate captain who was the master of 800 junks in the early 19th Century, had an equally ambitious wife named Ching Yih Saoa. When Ching died, his wife took over the family piracy business. She had a few basic regulations about sailors, shore leave and women:

If any man goes privately on shore...he shall be taken and his ears perforated in the presence of the whole fleet; repeating the same act he shall suffer death.

Or: No person shall debauch at his pleasure captive women taken in the villages and open places and brought on board a junk, he must first request the ship's purser for permission...

Three songs about sailors on leave, whether drunk or wooing (or both):

"What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor?" is the last of the three shanties featured here from Peter Kennedy's LP Sea Songs. "The Fisherman's Group," who sang this version, were simply that, as Kennedy wrote: "The fishermen in Cornwall not only operated out of harbours, but also pushed their boats out from coves along the rocky shoreline. In the fifties they were entertaining holiday visitors with the more well-known songs and shanties in their 'local' at Cadgwith, near the Lizard. On the occasion that I recorded them in 1956, they were led by Bill Barber, from St Mary's in the Scilly Isles."

I'm Popeye the wife-beating man, 1935

Perhaps the most noted shore-bound sailor is Popeye, created by Elzie Segar in 1929 and who, in a few years' time, had become about as famous as a one-eyed grotesque sailor who lived in a menagerie of freaks could be.

"I'm Popeye the Sailor Man" was written by Sammy Lerner, and poaches from Gilbert and Sullivan's "Pirate King," from The Pirates of Penzance. It's performed here in a 1935 version by Billy Costello, an actor who was Popeye's first voice until he was sacked for allegedly just being a jerk. Jack Mercer, an animator, would take over as Popeye's voice for the next few decades.

Recorded 27 April 1935; on Vintage Children's Favorites.

In 1930, Victor Records assembled a Who's Who of jazz players--Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti, Bubber Miley, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey--to back Hoagy Carmichael for two sides. And one of the tracks, Victor insisted, would be the novelty number "Barnacle Bill the Sailor."

You can imagine the groans in the studio when the players heard this. Carmichael, hobbled with a hokey march tempo, shoved in two faster-paced sections to make room for two solos, a pairing that served as a changing of the guards: the first is one of Beiderbecke's last spotlights, the second is one of the young Goodman's first notable appearances.

The whole performance seems a hair's breadth away from obscenity, like a dirty joke whose punchline is being withheld; to add to the mayhem, Venuti loudly sings "Barnacle Bill the shithead" during the second chorus. Victor put the record out anyway. Recorded 21 May 1930; On Beat the Band to the Bar.

"Barnacle Bill" also has a long history as a rugby song. Full (and filthy, be warned) lyrics here.

With a Skull On Its Masthead

Lotte Lenya, Seeräuberjenny.
Lotte Lenya, Pirate Jenny.
Nina Simone, Pirate Jenny
Bob Dylan, When the Ship Comes In (demo).
Stephen Malkmus, The Hook.

Have you built your ship of death, O have you?
O build your ship of death, for you will need it.

D.H. Lawrence, The Ship of Death.

In no other area of transportation are the criminals so highly regarded. Maybe I'm wrong, perhaps there'll be a franchise of "Carjackers of St. Louis" movies in a few years. The romance of sea piracy (in reality a literally cut-throat business) seems an extension of how sea travel seems, in the general imagination, to grant liberties from life and the rules of civilization. Or maybe it's just the pirate outfits, which seem to come back into fashion every few decades.

Rather than try to sum up several hundred years' worth of pirate songs, I'll just choose one example.

man of wealth and taste

"Pirate Jenny" was written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill for Die Dreigroschenoper, their updating of John Gay's Beggar's Opera. Of all the songs in Threepenny Opera, "Pirate Jenny" is a cuckoo's egg--it stands outside the plot, has no real significance to anything else that occurs; it can be used in almost any scene, and even lacks any connection to a specific character. At first the song was intended for the lead female role, Polly, to be sung at her wedding, but in G.W. Pabst's 1931 film version of Threepenny Opera, Lotte Lenya, playing Jenny Diver, took over the song, and it was hers forever afterward.

"Pirate Jenny" is a remorseless fantasy of blood and revenge, sung by one of society's discards. With its utter callousness toward human life, and the delight that the singer takes in imagining her co-workers and customers massacred and her town burned to the ground, the song, more than anything else in the opera, seems horrifyingly prescient. The history of the past 70 years has been, in part, a list of damage wrought by such people, with the Virginia Tech massacre as but one recent example.

In "Pirate Jenny," the pirates are off-stage--they exist merely as avenging dark angels, forces from beyond who come in to liberate the singer, who is an utter nonentity in her world. It's the reverse of the typical sea fantasy, in which someone trapped on land wishes to take to the seas to escape: "Pirate Jenny" is the song of someone who wishes the seas, in all their violence and disunion, would come to them.

Here are two versions of Lenya's performance--"Seerauber-Jenny," was recorded in Berlin in 1930 as part of several recordings made with the original cast. And Lenya's "Pirate Jenny" comes from Marc Blitzstein's 1954 English adaptation, which finally established Threepenny Opera as a standard in the U.S. (A '30s version had flopped.) Recorded April 1954; on Original Soundtrack.

Anne Bonny, who told her husband, the pirate Calico Jack, at his trial: "If you had fought like a man, there would be no need to hang like a dog."

Nina Simone's version of "Pirate Jenny," from 1964, resets the stage. The singer is now not just a maid in a seaside village, she is a black woman in a "crummy Southern town," and the retribution she imagines and demands is nothing less than an Old Testament-style annihilation of a corrupt, bigoted culture. It's an astonishing performance, in which Simone seems to live out an entire bloody lifetime in the course of a few minutes. Recorded live at Carnegie Hall on 21 March 1964. On Best of Nina Simone.

And Bob Dylan's "When the Ship Comes In" continues the reworking of "Pirate Jenny" into an ode to divine justice: here, with even the rocks and fish dancing in celebration, the pirate crew informs the people of the town that their reign is over, then all of the corrupt are swept out by the tide. (Dylan's song retains an element of base revenge, however, as Joan Baez recalled Dylan writing the song in a hot rage after being treated rudely by a hotel clerk.)

This is a demo recorded for Dylan's publishing company, Witmark, taped in August-September 1963; released on Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3. The official take is on Times They Are A-Changin'.

Finally, as an epilogue, Stephen Malkmus offers piracy in its more basic state--just your average kidnapping, maiming, murder. "And if I spare your life it's because the tide is leaving." On 2001's Stephen Malkmus.

Rolling On the River

Frank Trumbauer with Bix Beiderbecke, Riverboat Shuffle.
Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers, Steamboat Stomp.
Clara Smith, Steamboat Man Blues.
Delmore Brothers, Steamboat Bill Boogie.
The Band and Emmylou Harris, Evangeline.

Jim took up some of the top planks of the raft and built a snug wigwam to get under in blazing weather and rainy, and to keep the things dry. Jim made a floor for the wigwam, and raised it a foot or more above the level of the raft, so now the blankets and all the traps was out of reach of steamboat waves...We fixed up a short forked stick to hang the old lantern on, because we must always light the lantern whenever we see a steamboat coming down-stream, to keep from getting run over; but we wouldn't have to light it for up-stream boats unless we see we was in what they call a "crossing"; for the river was pretty high yet, very low banks being still a little under water; so up-bound boats didn't always run the channel, but hunted easy water.

This second night we run between seven and eight hours, with a current that was making over four mile an hour. We catched fish and talked, and we took a swim now and then to keep off sleepiness. It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big, still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn't ever feel like talking loud, and it warn't often that we laughed -- only a little kind of a low chuckle. We had mighty good weather as a general thing, and nothing ever happened to us at all -- that night, nor the next, nor the next.

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

River travel is the domestic sphere of sailing, in which the river and its vessels serve as the lifeblood (or antibodies) of a city. That said, river travel has its own mysteries--rivers are often used as a means of escape, a place to throw bodies, as the avenue of smugglers and fugitives.

Here are a few river songs, mainly focusing on the mighty Mississippi:

"Riverboat Shuffle" features the genius of Frank Trumbauer on C-melody saxophone and Bix Beiderbecke on trumpet, along with Bill Rank (tb), Don Murray (cl), Eddie Lang (g). Recorded in New York on 9 May 1927; on Singin' The Blues.

Jelly Roll Morton's "Steamboat Stomp" was recorded with Barney Bigard and Darnell Howard (cl), Kid Ory (tb), Johnny St. Cyr (banjo), John Linsday (bass), Andrew Hillaire (d). Recorded in Chicago on 21 September 1926; on Birth of the Hot.

Clara Smith
, considered Bessie Smith's greatest rival in terms of '20s blues records, cut "Steamboat Man Blues" in Chicago. Recorded 23 May 1928 and released as Columbia 14344. On Complete Recorded Works Vol. 5 and eMusic.

The Delmore Brothers' "Steamboat Bill Boogie" finds the brothers at the end of the road, when they were making rock & roll records in all but name. Recorded in Cincinnati on 21-22 October 1951 and released as King 1023; on Freight Train Boogie.

Cincinnati waterfront, 1865.

"Evangeline," an Acadian riverboat saga, was one of the last songs recorded by The Band, who, with guest star Emmylou Harris, performed the song on an MGM soundstage specifically for Martin Scorsese's film, after the Band's farewell concert had been filmed. On The Last Waltz. (Around the same time, Harris recorded another, more country solo version, which became the title track of her out-of-print 1981 album--it can be heard on this site.)

Sail On

becalmed ship, Bering Strait

The Revels, The Leaving of Liverpool.
Richard Thompson, Mingulay Boat Song.
The Beach Boys, Sail On, Sailor.

After the storm
the other boats didn't
hesitate--they spun out

from the rickety pier, the men
bent to the nets or turning
the weedy winches.
Surely the sea

is the most beautiful face
in our universe, but
you won't find a fisherman
who will say so;

what they say is,
See you later.

Mary Oliver, The Waves.

George Eastman, on board S.S. Gallia, 1890.

Let's end with some leavings and homecomings:

"The Leaving of Liverpool" likely hails from the mid-19th Century--it can be traced back to 1885, when a seaman named Dick Maitland claimed he had heard a Liverpool-born sailor singing it in the foc's'le of a ship called the General Knox. Maitland taught it to the folk- song collector W.M. Doerflinger, who published the song in 1951. On The Revels' Homeward Bound, from 2002.

The first busy day of a homeward passage was sinking into the dull peace of resumed routine. Aft, on the high poop, Mr Baker walked shuffling and grunted to himself in the pauses of his thoughts. Forward, the look-out man, erect between the flukes of the two anchors, hummed an endless tune, keeping his eyes fixed dutifully ahead in a vacant stare. A multitude of stars coming out into the clear night peopled the emptiness of the sky. They glittered, as if alive above the sea; they surrounded the running ship on all sides; more intense than the eyes of a staring crowd, and as inscrutable as the souls of men.

The passage had begun, and the ship, a fragment detached from the earth, went on lonely and swift like a small planet.

Joseph Conrad, The Nigger of the 'Narcissus'.

Mingulay is one of the Bishop's Isles in the Outer Hebrides, so when a Scottish sailor was homebound, seeing Mingulay would often be the first indication they were reaching land. "Mingulay Boat Song," however, isn't really a traditional shantey--it was written by Hugh S. Roberton, the founder of the Glasgow Orpheus Choir, in 1938, more than two decades after Mingulay had been abandoned by its inhabitants.

Richard Thompson's version is from 2006's Rogue's Gallery.

And the Beach Boys' "Sail On, Sailor" is from 1973's Holland. Dedicated to Tom Birnbacher.

Many anecdotes, information, photos, quotes, etc. are derived from three phenomenal anthologies: The Oxford Book of the Sea, edited by Jonathan Raban; The Norton Book of the Sea, ed. John O. Coote; and The Book of the Sea, ed. A.C. Spectorsky. Spiritual guidance: Yacht Rock.