THE LONGEST JOHNS – Voyage (own label)

VoyageThe appetite for shanties remains unabated, Voyage being the ninth album from the Bristolian crew and again with a mix of traditional and original material, the latter opening proceedings with ‘The Llandoger’ which, beginning with a simple mandolin strum before it all kicks in, is a celebration of the supposedly haunted The Llandoger Trow, a Bristol pub supposedly the inspiration for the one in Treasure Island, regularly frequented by Daniel Defoe, a simple celebration of drinking with mates and to hell with the hangover song.

Banjo laying down the ground in the muted intro (recorded through a 4-inch speaker installed into a matchbox), the first of the traditionals is a rework of ‘Whiskey Is The Life of Man’, noting it being something that keeps sailors going while at sea but which also consumes them in the process. Then comes a particular highlight with an inspired cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Proud Mary’ (which, after all, was about a boat) as a foot stomping a capella track, followed in turn, opening unaccompanied, by their rowdy take on a shanty evergreen in ‘The Leaving Of Liverpool’ holding its glass high alongside versions by The Dubliners, The Spinners, The Pogues and The Clancy Brothers.

Returning to self-penned material, the swayalong ‘Mutiny’ which, taking an almost Music Hall approach musically, is about what it says on the tin as a bunch of pissed off pirates decide they’ve had enough of their tyrannical captain only for his would be replacement finding himself supplanted by “a firebrand and knave with grandiose ideas”.

Another original, ‘Skadi’s Hammer’ refers to the Norse goddess of Winter, the suitably percussive and otherwise unaccompanied lurch, pitching her in battle against Demeter, the Ancient Greek goddess of the harvest in what is, of course, an allegorical account of the harvest and the reaping of John Barleycorn as autumn cedes to winter.

Despite what might seem an obvious link, the strummed slow walking traditional call and response ‘John the Red Nose’ has nothing to do with effects of alcohol, the totem song allegedly originating around the time of the 14th Century Peasants Revolt and better known as ‘The Cutty Wren’, the wren being symbolic of the tyrannical king. Staying in traditional territory, having been singing it since they first began, they finally get round to recording ‘Greenland Whale Fisheries’, sung a cappela to a thumping rhythm and the verse cobbled together from a wealth of different versions.

Two original follow, the first being ‘White Frontier’, a steady stomping number about sailors who braved the deadly ice packs and, like those here, finding themselves stuck and awaiting their doom “statues on the frozen seas”. Another maritime disaster, ‘One Hundred Feet’ takes the mood and pace down for a song inspired by the tragedy of HMY Iolaire, an Admiralty Yacht that sank at the entrance to Stornoway harbour on 1 January 1919, with the loss of at least 201 men out 283, just 100 feet from safety.

Opening with a demented spoken cackle, the final self-penned number is the clattering ‘Maggie’s Ship’, an unruly ditty about “a wicked captain by the name of Maggie Grey/The strongest arm and coldest heart from here to Boston bay”, who’s “stingy with the coinage but…generous with the whip”, with the lead vocal parts swapping back and forth, overlapping and going all doo wop shanty before collapsing into chaotic shouting and laughing, including Italian yelling from their bass player.

The three remaining numbers are all traditional, the banjo strum ‘Willie Taylor’, a much told tale of a woman sneaking aboard ship looking to free her press-ganged lover only to find he’s taken up with another and murdering them both, getting command of a ship as reward for her efficiency.

Rather less known is the a cappella ‘Shawneetown’, a song titled for and written about a former major trading centre in Southern Illinois, sites near where the Ohio River meets the Wabash. Credited to Dillon Bustin, who combined two fragments of old boatmen’s songs about using keelboats to transport goods, having to be pulled upriver against the current on the return trip. And finally, introducing a hint of Irish folksy banjo bluegrass, a capstan shanty, the swayalong ‘Paddy West’ was based on the titular Liverpool Irishman, a boarding-house master who trained farmers and mill-hands to be seamen, having them, as described here, step across an old rope and walk around a cow’s horn so that he could claim that they had “crossed the line and rounded the horn”, giving rise to the term Paddy Wester to describe useless sailors.

Taking a cue from a favourite seaman’s tipple and to paraphrase the Stones, it’s only grog n roll, but I like it. [In the words of Private Eye – You’re fired! – Ed]

Mike Davies

Artists’ website:

‘Shawneetown’ – official video:

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