The Shoals of Herring

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

The Shoals of Herring was written for the third of the eight BBC radio ballads by Ewan MacColl, Charles Parker and Peggy Seeger, Singing the Fishing (first broadcast on 16 August 1960, released on an Argo LP in 1966 and now available on a Topic CD). It was about the herring fishery and fishermen, and the song was designed specifically to highlight the life-story of Sam Larner, who had spent a long life as a herring fisherman, but was retired at the time of the recording. He first went to sea, he said, in 1892, when he was just a boy. (source,

 The Radio Ballads…was put together by folk singers Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger and ex-submarine commander turned recording pioneer Charles Parker. The first ballad ‘The Ballad of John Axon’ was aired on radio in 1958. It was the first musical documentary of its kind, it was revolutionary in that it combined music with the speech of working people. Whilst this may sound strange today documentaries were usually scripted and read by actors…you’d be lucky to hear any regional accent. This was all just before radio made way for television.

Peter Cox’s brilliant book ‘Set into Song’ which tells the story the Radio Ballads explained how those ballads had a huge impact upon documentary makers in the 60’s in both radio and television and were even used in BBC training courses. In 1971 Philip Donnellan adapted the Radio Ballad ‘Singing the Fishing’ into a TV documentary called ‘Shoals of Herring’ which was televised on BBC 2 in 1972. Donnellan wanted to to show the fishermen’s struggle and how they were being exploited, he felt the original Radio Ballad lacked political edge…something Ewan MacColl would never have taken kindly to. Whilst many Scots families owned their fishing boats Donnellan saw the English fishermen as wage slaves to the big fishing industrial groups (source,

When I finished writing [this], we sang it to Sam Larner on our next trip up. He was delighted that I knew it for, as he declared, ‘I known that song all my life’. […] A song about fishermen must please fishermen, a song about miners must be convincing to miners, or there is something wrong with it. (MacColl, Journeyman 323) For The Shoals of Herring I tried out and rejected more than a score of tune models and, in the course of a fortnight, sang hundreds of first-line variants before I found one that pleased me. After that, it was a matter of seeing whether the rest of the tune soared naturally out of that first line or whether it had to be coaxed into the open. (MacColl, Journeyman 365) (source,

If you have an hour or two to spare, you might want to visit Mudcat and follow the various threads that detail the nit-picking that surrounds the authorship of the song. I’m content to go along with the McColl hypothesis (Spoiler alert for conspiracy theorists– I also think that Shakespeare, rather than the Earl of Somethingorother, wrote the plays and sonnets.)

The song has a special place in my pantheon of folk songs because my father, like Sam Larner, first went to sea as a cabin boy, aged 14. He followed his father and grandfather in this choice of occupation, finally reaching the status of captain of a shallow-bottomed oil-tanker running oil from Lake Maracaibo to Aruba, dodging German U-boats, during the Second World War.

This song is another from Banter’s repertoire featuring Sam the Man on vocals. And yet again I substitute on vocals. For this lockdown version, I use the Outlaw Country rhythm section from Band-in-a-Box featuring acoustic piano, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, electric bass and Nashville outlaw drums. Apart from doubling vocals on the final line of each verse, I don’t bother with any other embellishments.

The Shoals of Herring

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