Sunday 18 November 2012

60: The Cruise of the Calabar

A song about the perils of life aboard a canal barge; a parody of tales of danger and bravery on the high seas, the humour comes from the somewhat underwhelming nature of the (mis)adventures and locations. This version is one I found in a packet of reproductions of street songs and ballads (the Liverpool Packet No. 1 sold by Scouse Press). Fritz Spiegl (writer, humorist, and principal flautist with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra) transcribed it from a copy in the Liverpool Record Office, noting the original had been "made almost illegible by some anonmyous amateur entertainer who made illuminating (but equally feeble) alterations. He was determined, for example, to get an easy laugh by mentioning the word 'Bootle' as often as possible". The tune used was that of the ironically named song 'Limerick is Beautiful'. The words are as was sung by Billy Richardson for many years at Sam Hague's in St James' Hall on Lime Street. The African American Theatre Directory, 1816-1960 explains that "Sam Hague's Slave Troupe" was a minstrel troupe under Sam Hague, well-known English minstrel man and clog dancer; they toured around the USA and Britain from 1865 before settling more or less permanently in Liverpool in 1870. Billy Richardson was one of the troupe's great comedians, a "stump speaker" who delivered witty monologues on local issues.

A little further up the Leeds-Liverpool canal in Burscough, a very different version (also full of Liverpool locations) was collected in 1953 by Fred Hamer from Emma Vickers, who came from a family who lived and worked on the barges - one of the few (perhaps the only?) songs about the inland waterways to be collected from people who actually lived that life. Her version has some similarities to Stan Kelly's reconstruction The Quality of Mersey, which makes me wonder if there's any connection between that song and the Cruise of the Calabar.

The Leeds-Liverpool canal was built between 1770 and 1816, with a final connection to the Liverpool docks built in 1822, and was of massive importance supplying coal and other goods to the city, as well as taking goods from the port inland. (The canal has a special place in my own heart because I grew up right by it in Bootle.) The photo above shows a horse-drawn barge at Chisenhale Street Bridge in 1814 - it's astonishing how rural it looks, now long since swallowed up by the urban sprawl. The canal now stops short of Chisenhale Street, though you can still see the bridge over where the canal used to be.

In the Roud Folksong index, this is #1079

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