Wednesday 22 February 2012

44: M.V. Statesman

As I've got quite a few shanties and sea songs on here, I thought it was important to include something from the post-WW2 Liverpool ships. Not for delicate ears, this one is studded with expletives - a fine demonstration of the phrase "swearing like a sailor". This is one of a number of songs collected by Ron Baxter of Fleetwood during his time in the Merchant Navy (1966-1974). As he explains, "In 1966, a skinny 17-year-old clad in a navy rain-coat two sizes too big boarded the S.S. Clan Sutherland. The watchman promptly told him, 'Don't be a bloody fool, son - go back home to yer mam!' This was my welcome to the Merchant Navy. But it was on that first trip that I was introduced to a class of songs virtually ignored by folk-song collectors - the Merchant Navy songs... my collection is a mixture of crude, unpolished, light-hearted parodies, although there are several gems. The majority decry the Company, the Master, the Officers, and the engines. They frequently poke fun at gay stewards, though I can't remember ever meeting any homophobics at sea."

The M.V. Statesman is one of a family of songs (usually known as M.V. Hardship) to the tune of 'Villikins and his Dinah' complaining of on-board conditions. This Liverpool version directs its anger at a particular ship in the Harrison's Line, and Ron Baxter notes that "unlike most of the other songs I collected, this is a 'lower-deck' song".

T. and J. Harrison was a shipping line founded in Liverpool in 1853. They liked using the same ship names over and over again, and Harrisons actually had six ships called "Statesman"; the 2nd incarnation of the Statesman was torpedoed by a U-boat during the first world war, and the fourth incarnation was sunk in WW2 by a German air attack off the coast of Ireland. The photo above is, I believe, of the fifth incarnation of the Statesman, built in 1944, purchased by Harrisons in 1948, and sold off in 1962.

Sunday 12 February 2012

43: The Rambling Royal

A song about a Scouse deserter trying to get back to his girl in Birkenhead. I found two published versions of this song; the first was in Roy Palmer's Everyman's Book of British Ballads. He writes that "this forceful tale of protest goes back at least to 1798, when Irish rebels had a version beginning 'I am a real republican, John Wilson is my name'". The song definitely survived in Liverpool well into the 20th century, and the version Palmer includes was collected by Phil Colclough, a folk revival singer of some note from Staffordshire who in his early life had joined the Merchant Navy and sailed out of Liverpool. Bert Lloyd also collected a version of this song from Frank Jeffries, a "seaman of Liverpool"; his version is published in Sing Magazine, Vol. 6 No. 6 (1962). It's substantially the same as the one from Colclough in both words and tune, only with a bit more ornamentation.

Given that both the deserter and the Birkenhead girl who promised to conceal him in her bedroom would have been severely punished for their actions, in a certain sense this is as much a song of daring as many tales of wartime heroism. I certainly start to admire the Rambling Royal's swagger and bravado by the time it gets to the last verse.

In the Roud folksong index, this is #982, grouped together with other deserter songs that are clearly very close relations, including 'The Belfast Shoemaker'.