JOE DANKS – Seaspeak (own label)

SeaspeakI once tried to explain to a red-haired lady in Dublin that I had no connection with the sea as I was brought up in Derbyshire which is as far from the ocean as it was possible to get. It was to no avail but it was gone midnight and the porter had been flowing freely. The point of this story is that Joe Danks, formerly of Ranagri, is also from Derbyshire but here he is with an album of maritime songs and tunes that emerged from his residency at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Seaspeak, as I have recently discovered, is a form of English designed to aid communication between ships which don’t share a common language.

If you’re expecting a rousing collection of shanties and hornpipes let me disabuse you of that notion straightaway. Well, there is actually a set of hornpipes but that’s neither here nor there and there is a hunting song and a song about an elephant. Joe is nothing if not inventive as the opening track proves.

That track is ‘Sea Fever’ and you’re thinking just what I thought before I heard it. Joe has combined part of ‘Sea Fever’, used as a chorus, with verses from ‘Roadways’ and a tune influenced by a music hall setting by Herman Löhn. That’s much more interesting with Danny Pedler’s piano accordion carrying the arrangement and Sarah Matthews’ violin decorating. He follows that with a set of ‘Quadrilles’ introduced by the step dancing of Simon Harmer. There was a great tradition of dancing on board ship and hard shoes were prescribed but the dances were more often hornpipes than quadrilles.

‘Jutland 1916’ is the first original Danks song. Jack Cornwell became famous as a result of his heroism at the battle but Danks tells the story of an ordinary seaman called John Blackwell who also lost his life in the battle. The song is gentle to the point of fragility and features Jean Kelly’s harp – but listen to Joe’s opinion of Admiral Jellicoe. And now for the elephant on the dock. ‘Jumbo’ is loosely based on Leon Rosselson’s ‘Jumbo The Elephant’ and is paired with ‘The Matthew Scott Schottische’ penned by Matthews who plays violin, viola and provides backing vocals throughout the album. The unaccompanied ‘Southward’ comes from a collection of songs written on SY Morning – reckoned to be the first music to be published from Antarctica. That’s something else I’ve learned from Seaspeak.

And so to the hunting song, inspired by another exhibit in the museum; the banjo carried and played by Leonard Hussey on several Shackleton expeditions. ‘Hussey’s John Peel’ refers to a song Hussey was known to sing and Dank’s rewrite name-checks various crew-members as was common practice at the time. Thus, a song from the Lake District hills becomes a sea song and is finally followed by the aforementioned set of hornpipes. ‘Man Of War’ requires no introduction but ‘308’ probably does. It relates the story of the HMS Rawalpindi, sunk off Iceland in 1939 and the title refers to the ship’s complement, although figures vary according to which web-site you consult.

Finally, we have ‘Sweet Thames Flow Softly’, celebrating the National Maritime Museum’s long association with the river – another land-based sea song. Joe has been very clever in putting Seaspeak together and it really is quite splendid, both for the music and the stories behind the songs.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website:

‘Sea Fever’ – official video: