The Folk Process and the Strange Saga of Lord Franklin by John Kruth

Lord Franklin
HMS Terror stuck in ice

Does folk music imitate life or does life imitate folk music? Rod Serling once delved into this dilemma years ago in Season 5/ Episode #34 of The Twilight Zone. Titled Come Wander with Me, Serling introduces us to a surly troubadour named Floyd Burney AKA “The Rockabilly Kid” who goes a-rambling through some strange misty neck of woods where he meets a siren named Mary Rachel. The mysterious doe-eyed Mary foretells the future with her haunting folk song (titled “Come Wander with Me,” written by Jeff Alexander and sung by Bonnie Beecher) that is deliciously drenched in echoing alto flutes. With each new verse the duck-tailed rocker finds himself sinking deeper and deeper into a world of trouble. In the end he fulfills Mary’s prophecy of doom, and Serling appears wearing a wry grin, drolly commenting at the end of the show: “Floyd Burney… achieved that final dream of the performer: eternal top-name billing, not on the fleeting billboards of the entertainment world, but forever recorded among the folk songs of The Twilight Zone.”

Like something out of The Twilight Zone, the headline of London’s stalwart news source, The Guardian announced on September 12, 2016: “Ship found in Arctic 168 years after doomed Northwest Passage attempt.”

The yearning ballad of ‘Lord Franklin’ (AKA ‘Lady Franklin’s Lament’ or ‘The Sailor’s Dream’) as sung by Martin Carthy, Pentangle and many others recalls how the doomed Sir John Franklin “and his gallant crew” of “a hundred seamen [129, actually] sailed away, to the frozen ocean in the month of May [1845]” in a pair of ships – the HMS Terror and Franklin’s flagship, the HMS Erebus, “to seek a passage around the pole.”

Before we venture any further, let’s stop for a moment and consider the name of these two vessels… Erebus is a deity in Greek Mythology born from chaos that personified darkness. Other words often frequently used to describe Erebus include “covered” or “shadowed.” The name of the second ship speaks for itself – The Terror.

Franklin’s expedition would soon meet with disaster, one of the worst and most legendary in the Royal Navy’s history. “The crew tried to navigate through treacherous ice that eventually trapped Erebus and Terror on 12 September 1846,” The Guardian reported. Or as the ballad portrayed the event:

Their ship on mountains of ice were drove
Only the Eskimo with his skin canoe
Was the only one that ever came through

The surviving members of the crew abandoned ship and attempted to trudge south through the ice, battling frostbite, hunger and disease, but they never made it to the Hudson Bay trading post. Franklin reportedly died on King William Island on June 11, 1847.

Despite a series of search parties funded by Lady Franklin (who offered a £20,000 reward for locating the lost vessels) “the fate of Franklin” remained a mystery for one hundred and sixty-eight years.

But leave it to the locals to know the score. On September 3, 2016, an Inuit’s intuition combined with modern technology – in the shape of a “small, remotely operated vehicle” provided by the Arctic Research Foundation, discovered the wreck of the HMS Terror with three broken masts, 60 miles south of where it was believed to lie.

Released in November 1970, Pentangle’s fourth offering, Cruel Sister featured John Renbourn’s melancholy reading of “Lord Franklin,” a traditional song sung far and wide across the UK, Canada, and the U.S. Bob Dylan would borrow its lilting melody (originally an Irish air known as ‘Cailín Óg a Stór’ for his 1963 song, ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream’.

A brilliant guitarist (and sometime sitarist) who intricately wove medieval folk melodies with blues, Renbourn, who founded Pentangle in 1967, died at his home of a heart attack on March 26, 2015. He was seventy years old. On September 22, 2016, a memorial concert was held in his honour at the Cecil Sharp House in London, featuring Ralph McTell, Wizz Jones and others.

“That morning, on the news, an announcement came that they had found Franklin’s ship, The Terror (The Erebus had been discovered two years earlier in September 2014).. I went all goose bumps. It was really eerie,” recalled Pentangle’s honey-voiced chanteuse Jacqui McShee. “It was my favorite song that John sang. I have recorded it as a tribute to John, on a duo album with Kevin Dempsey that is soon to be released.”

(For more details on “The fate of Franklin and his gallant crew” see: https://www.theguardian.com)

Lord Franklin (Traditional)

We were homeward bound one night on the deep
Swinging in my hammock I fell asleep
I dreamed a dream and I thought it true
Concerning Franklin and his gallant crew

With a hundred seamen he sailed away
To the frozen ocean in the month of May
To seek a passage around the pole
Where we poor sailors do sometimes go

Through cruel hardships they vainly strove
Their ships on mountains of ice were drove
Only the Eskimo with his skin canoe
Was the only one that ever came through

In Baffin’s Bay where the whale fish blow
The fate of Franklin no man may know
The fate of Franklin no tongue can tell
Lord Franklin alone with his sailors do dwell

And now my burden it gives me pain
For my long-lost Franklin I would cross the main
Ten thousand pounds I would freely give
To know on earth, that my Franklin do live

John Renbourn performs ‘Lord Franklin’ live:


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