THE LONGEST JOHNS – Cures What Ails Ya (own label)

Cures What Ails YaAware that shanties and other maritime songs can often be earnest fare, the Bristol-based four piece have opted to take an often irreverent and playful approach to the tradition, sometimes a capella, at others with basic instrumentation, combining standards with their own, often, tongue in cheek material. It’s one of the latter that weigh anchor here with ‘Hoist Up The Thing’, a song about an enthusiastic but wet behind the ears wannabe captain, fresh out of college, seeking to impress a potential crew by yelling out commands such as the title. On top of which, he can’t sing shanties or stand grog. Likewise, sung unaccompanied, ‘Go No Beard’, a cumulative ditty, explains why shanty groups are no place for those whose chins are on display, can’t shout ho! or don’t own a boat, among other essentials. Then there’s ‘The Last Bristolian Pirate’, which (a rewrite of ‘Last Saskatchewan Pirate’) is actually a protest song about repossession, unemployment and pitiful benefits, yet still takes a cheery tack about sailing down the Severn with the Jolly Roger hoisted and stealing “wheat and barley and all the other grains”. Or, accompanied by floor toms, the rollicking row ho row whaling parody ‘Moby Duck’.

They don’t just pen humourous numbers though, ‘Round The Cape’ is a rousing seafaring belter that could well be mistaken for a traditional number where it not for the line “rock and roll a-, rock and roll a-, rock and roll away” and could easily have found a home on those early Pogues albums, ‘Four Hours’ is an onboard work song while backed by harmonium drone, a gradually swelling, slow swayer number, ‘Ashes’ is a riposte to hardline traditionalists who feel folk music should be preserved in amber and not evolve (“I’ll tend to the flame, you can worship the ashes”). Then, sung unaccompanied and drawing on accounts from the time, ‘Fire & Flame’ tells of the largest recorded explosion before the use of nuclear weapons when, in 1917, in Nova Scotia, Norwegian ship the Imo collided with the French munitions ship the Mont-Blanc in the harbour, setting off the TNT onboard the latter and devastating the town of Halifax with approximately 2,000 people killed and an estimated 9,000 injured.

Turning to well-salted material, you’ll also find the hatches battened down with more serious-minded visions of the likes of ‘ Bonny Ship The Diamond’, ‘Here’s A Health’, ‘Banks Of The Lee’ and, set to the tune by Peter Bellamy, ‘Oak, Ash & Thorn’. Whether you have sea legs or not, this is a definite case of ails well than ends well.

Mike Davies

Artists’ website:

‘We All Lift Together’ – live before lockdown:

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