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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A Sailor’s life published

John ShortFinally, the biography of John Short – Yankee Jack, the shantyman from Watchet in Somerset – is finished!  It is being published on 23rd September – the centenary of Cecil Sharp’s last collecting visit to John.  And just in time for Christmas, too!

The result is a remarkably detailed account of his life story, the ships he sailed on, and the shanties he sang as he sailed all over the world.  The book draws on archive material such as ships log-books and biannual returns, Lloyds shipping list, local newspapers and a host of other sources.  It gives a rare insight into the life of a merchant mariner from the great days of sail.

If you can/want to get to the ‘launch’, it’s at the Bell Inn, 3 Market Street, Watchet TA23 0AN from noon to 2 p.m. on September 23rd and you’d be very welcome – but RSVP if you’re coming, so we can make sure there are enough nibbles!

If you can’t, but still wish to buy a copy, there’s an order form attached, or you can download a form from

JIM CAUSLEY – Dumnonia (Wild Goose Records WGS 377 CD)

At least young Causley is thinking outside the box, even if it is by reflecting in song his local county of which he is justifiably proud. Come to think of it let’s have a show of hands for those of you who agree. As he states in his sleeve-notes he’s steered clear of the more established Devon songs and in doing so brings a wealth of lesser-known material to his audience. I’m pleased to say that he’s not averse to giving credit where credit’s due and opens with “When I Was Young” passed on through the aural tradition by Paul Wilson. As he rightly states, this pleasant ballad should take its place among the more popular of the ‘established’ songs and, who knows, if enough tradition bearers latch onto it, it will. Surrounding himself with an august bunch of musicians including Nick Wyke & Becki Driscoll, Tom & Barbara Brown and The Dartmoor Pixie Band his vocals are mostly unmannered unlike a plethora of recent artists whose names immediately spring to mind. There is much to admire in his diligent research and much to thank for his inquisitive nature in putting together a selection of songs that through the passage of time may well become as popular as the standards he has tried to avoid.


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