Sunday, 16 June 2013

Death by shanty

If you were monitoring my Facebook and Twitter feeds this weekend, you may have noticed my displeasure at inadvertently having "box seats" for the 2013 Falmouth International Sea Shanty Festival:

I don't intrinsically have anything against sea shanties. After all, I am a lover of both history and music (although fans of music can often object to shanty performances on the basis of, as I referred to it above, "spurious harmonizing"). The problem is that even the best shanty performances grow tedious after about, say, 30 minutes. Since I live in the square where the Shanty Festival activities were concentrated, I had to listen to far more than 30 minutes--not just during a single day, but over a 2.5-day period that corresponded with the weekend that I needed to use to unwind after a very stressful two weeks at work. As you might imagine, exposure to 50 performances of "Sloop John B" does not facilitate relaxation.

The only thing you can do in such a situation is try to make the best of it, so I did a little research in order to learn about the culture to which I was being exposed. Many audience members were dressed as pirates (it doesn't take much to prompt that sort of thing in Cornwall), but shanties were traditionally sung by any workers on "square-rigged ships in the Age of Sail." The point of the songs was to keep all the workers in rhythm with each other. To this end, there were three types of shanty: short haul, halyard, and capstan. The first were associated with quick movements lasting for only a short period of time; the second were associated with slower handiwork involving heavier items; the third were associated with sustained, repetitive work. (Thanks to Andrew Draskoy for this information.)

View of the festivities from my balcony

One thing I've always wondered is why songs like "Proud Mary" and "Sloop John B" (*shudder*) are always rolled out at the Sea Shanty Festival, since they are obviously not shanties. The answer to this was provided by the official Falmouth Sea Shanty Festival website, which states that these non-working songs are called "forebitters," or tunes that were sung when the crew were getting some R&R. Apparently, sailors would often use these songs to air complaints about the captain, ship, or working conditions; if questioned, they could say that they merely learned the song from someone else, or that it was about another ship. In other words, shanties were useful for promoting harmony on board the ships (see what I did there?).

According to the website, the last working shantyman was a sailor named Stan Hugill, who once said that it was more important to have high volume than "tonal clarity," since the songs needed to be heard by men working high in the rigging. I can see the logic of applying that strategy to shanties sung on board ships, but I really wish that modern-day recreational performers weren't so hung up on this idea--or that, at the very least, they would strive for volume and clarity in equal measures. Off-key singing is bad, loud off-key singing is worse, and an entire weekend of loud off-key singing is like a nightmare come true.

Herring gull at Swanpool Beach. Because the weather was windy and rainy this weekend, the gull and I pretty much had the beach to ourselves. Bliss.

My coping mechanism this weekend was to periodically leave my apartment for a couple hours at a time. On my first trip, I headed to the theater to go see a film. Much to my dismay, I passed several groups of shantyers along the way--including a team in Seasalt, one of my favorite clothing stores in town. (Someone has finally devised a way to keep me from shopping there!) The theater was overrun with children attending a birthday party, so that was a bit of a frying pan/fire kind of situation. I was finally able to escape the shantyers by walking along the coast. The sounds of nature are always soothing, but never more so than this weekend.

A group of female mallards hanging out at Swanpool. The only unpleasant sounds here were the occasional grating squawks of coots.

All joking aside, the shanties can actually be quite interesting to hear--especially if you come from a non-nautical background and have never before been exposed to such things. The Festival is good at not only highlighting and venerating the music, but also providing a place for people to celebrate maritime culture and Cornish history. From my lofty perch, I could see sailors' stripes in a variety of patterns and colors, old-fashioned fishermen's caps, amazing pirate cosplay, and many an impressive grey beard on a grizzled old face; I could also hear a good number of thick Cornish accents and lots of audience participation. It is great to see and hear so many people interested in the region's heritage. Also, the event raised hundreds of pounds for charity. Yay!

In order to give everyone a taste of what it was like to be me this weekend, I whipped out my recorder after a particularly talented group took the stage on Saturday afternoon. Clips of their performances are below:

(I love how my Soundcloud profile photo makes it look as though I'm singing the shanties.)

I won't lie to you: I'm very relieved that the Shanty Festival has drawn to a close. (Though, as I type this at 11:30 PM, I can hear strains of late-night shanties coming to me from the local pubs, which are at least 200 m away on the other side of several buildings; shantyers a) have a lot of stamina, and b) really do know how to generate high-amplitude songs.) However, I'm glad that the Festival exists, allowing a hugely diverse group of people to come together for a couple of days. As I said above, I love music, and not just for aesthetic reasons. As this past weekend demonstrates, upbeat, harmonious, multi-part songs like shanties can promote goodwill and inclusiveness--even touching the heart of this grumpy landlubber Yank. (If only momentarily.)

A hint of sun as the Festival draws to a close...

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