TOM BROWN – A Sailor’s Life

John ShortS&A Projects
ISBN: 978-0-9930468-0-3
Softback – 165 pages

The life of John Short of Watchet is, in many ways, an ordinary life. We was born in 1839, married and fathered three children and died at the grand old age of 94. He also sailed around the world and became something of a local hero as ‘Yankee Jack’ the shantyman – not quite so ordinary, then.

John did not keep a diary nor did he write many letters but because of the detailed record keeping of the merchant marine in the 19th century, Tom Brown has been able to piece together the details of his voyages. He first went to sea with his father at the age of nine – not full time – working the coastal trade between Somerset and South Wales. We know that he had some education and could read and write but he began work full-time at the age of fourteen. His first deep-sea voyage was probably to Quebec in 1857 aboard the Promise where he learned his first two shanties. He was one of the earliest shantymen and his versions are consequently among the least developed. In his twentieth year he doubled round the horn on the Hugh Block to Valparaiso and followed that with a voyage to India aboard Earl Balcarres. It by referring to Lloyd’s List and Short’s own discharge papers which he kept after each trip that Tom’s researches have managed to detail these voyages.

John’s story is also the story of the merchant navy in the second half of the century and to the point when he left the sea in 1901. There had been many changes, not least the giving way of sail to steam and John hated steam ships. The book is packed with fascinating details of maritime law and the fluctuations of world trade that he would have seen.

The reason that we are now interested in John Short is that Cecil Sharp collected his entire repertoire – some fifty-seven songs – in 1914 and published many of them in English Folk Chanteys that same year. All his shanties have been recorded by an international cast (of which Tom is a member) on three CDs under the title Short Sharp Shanties and the texts and notations are also included here. Without Sharp, Short’s contribution to the world would have been as ephemeral as anyone else’s and it is fitting that his life story, even pieced together from official documents, should be recounted.

Dai Jeffries

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