THE LONGEST JOHNS – Smoke + Oakum (Decca 3876697)

Smoke + OakumSigned to a major label deal on the back of last year’s surprise viral TikTok and Top 40 success of traditional New Zealand folk song ‘Wellerman’ from their 2018 album Between Wind & Water, the Bristol shanty-singing close harmony four piece – Andy Yates, Dave Robinson, Jonathan Darley and Robbie Sattin – have suddenly found themselves with a massive new audience. As such, they’ve risen to the occasion with their fourth album, Smoke + Oakum (oakum is a rope made of flax fibres drenched in pine tar), one which serves up several classics that will likely be familiar to landlubbers alongside numbers better known among their core shanty following.

With a mix of covers, traditional and six self-penned numbers (which you’d be hard-pressed to realise if you didn’t have the credits), they open with all guns blazing for a rousing, banjo-accompanied take on Stephen Foster’s still resonant ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’ . It features an a capella chorus towards the end, and half of the album’s numbers are sung wholly unaccompanied, first up being ‘Don’t Forget Your Old Shipmate’, a traditional British naval song dating from the Napoleonic Wars and still sung in still sung aboard Royal Navy surface combatant ships, the rhythm set by stomping feet.

Elsewhere, the others line up as Edward Leslie Pickford’s tribute to/lament for the lot of the working man,  ‘The Worker’s Song’ (“We’re the first ones to starve/We’re the first ones die/We’re the first ones in line/For that “pie in the sky/And we’re always the last/When the cream is shared out/For the worker is working/When the fat cats about”), each member singing individually with Seth Lakeman also guesting and coming together for the chorus. Then comes the self-penned ‘Pride Of The White Star Line’, the story of the four ships built in the Belfast shipyard, The Titanic and The Brittanic which both sunk. The Hawk, which was holed at the Isle of Wight but repaired, and The Olympic, the Pride of the title, which set the record for crossing to New York and sank U-boats during the war before eventually being scrapped at Jarrow. There’s three other originals, the first being Joshua Bowker’s ‘Hammer And The Anvil’, which uses the imagery of the blacksmith using his tools to make a horseshoe, an anchor, a broadsword and a general’s statue as both a metaphor for working together for a common goal but also as a protest song about the cost to the soul of forging the armaments of war.

The second, the gallows dark rhythm of  ‘Downed And Drowned’, returns to nautical concerns is to relate the fate of a further four vessels, three wrecked and one a famous mystery, namely the San Jose, a  Spanish galleon sunk at sea in battle off the Colombia  in 1708, laden with never recovered gold, silver and emerald, The Royal Charter, a steam clipper wrecked, along with a  further 200, in a  storm in Dulas Bay on the Anglesey coast in  1859 with the loss of around 450 lives (“Miners’ pockets filled with gold/Dragged them down to the ocean cold”) and  The Revenge, an English galleon captured by the Spanish in 1591 and later lost in a storm along with its crew and prisoners.

The fourth concerns one of the most famous maritime mysteries, the Mary Celeste, found adrift and unmanned in the Atlantic Ocean in 1872, the fate of the crew never known. The last band contribution, given a barber shop treatment, is the album’s swigging stomp ‘Beer Is Great’ the title of which is fairly self-explanatory (“beer goes in, joy comes out”).  There’s two further unaccompanied tracks, both traditional, a brief but robust thigh slapper, hand clapper stomp through Massachusetts shanty ‘Johnny Come Down To Hilo’ that should have you thumping along on the pub table, and ‘Thousands Or More’, a stirring anthemic number about being happy with your lot and driving sorrows away popularised by The Copper Family.

Meanwhile, back on the songs with instrumentation, banjo, kick drum and double bass in service, they’re aboard ship again for ‘Nantucket’, the whaling capital of the world, as the narrator wishes he was back there hauling the meat rather than “away with all liberty’s sons/Off down the channel to stand by the guns”, a reference to the American Revolutionary War, though, historically speaking, the island remained neutral.  Set to a stamping percussion rhythm and banjo with Sam Sweeney on fiddle, ‘Hog-Eye Man’ is a bawdy traditional capstan shanty from the southern United States, the title a disparaging term used by sailors in referring to inland bargees but also a reference to men with an insatiable appetite for sex.

Which leaves a further four numbers, three of them being traditional. Underlining the fact they don’t just sing shanties, there’s a spooked Appalachian funeral march take on folk classic ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ but then it’s back on decks for a fine scampering banjo and acoustic guitar arrangement of ‘The Mary Ellen Carter’, another ship-themed number, this written by the late Stan Rogers about the valiant attempt by crew members to salvage the eponymous sunken ship, with its inspirational message to never give up.

The remaining song is again a traditional sounding original, drums, banjo, tin whistle and fiddle giving an Irish air to the arms linked sway along shanty ‘Rolling Along’, a hymn to the joys of plying your trade on waters as “blue as cut sapphires and shining like gold” where, regardless the risk of wrecks, storms and pirates, where “there’s naught like a clipper just rolling along”.

Whether Smoke + Oakum will propel them to Fishermen’s Friends concert hall heights or prove a one-off before returning to self-releasing and the folk club circuit rather depends on which way the wind blows, but for now, to quote their ode to the hop, “there’s plenty of glasses to fill”.

Mike Davies

Artists’ website:

‘Hard Times Come Again No More’ – official video:

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