Welcome to Letters from Quotidia, the footnotes, Episode 7! Regular listeners to the posts know that the Letters just refuse to lie down and die. First, they were plain old letters, then postcards, and afterwards, postscripts. Now they have become footnotes! This is the third in the Castaway quartet.
A large swell is booming on the reef, protecting the beach from the full impact of the Pacific storms. But through the spray I can that see a gaff cutter is in trouble. As I watch she is split asunder on the spiny coral, her mast and sails collapsing. I pray that the brave crew are spared, and my supplications are speedily answered for I can faintly discern, through the spume and spindrift, a dory containing three men as they negotiate the narrow way through the reef.
They appear to be competent seafarers as they skilfully row the boat ashore. Halleluiah, I exclaimed, smiling at my little private joke. I reach them and help as they pull the dory over the high-water mark. Welcome to the island, I say, as they look about in puzzlement. Bobbing in on the incoming tide were barrels and crates from the stricken craft and we waited to salvage what we could from the wreck.
I worked alongside a well-weathered man who looked, somehow, familiar. During a break we took from the heavy work, he introduced himself as Jimmy Millar from Salford. Really, are you also known as Ewan MacColl? I asked. I told him that I had seen him perform in the mid-1970s in Wollongong Town Hall, New South Wales with his wife, Peggy Seeger. One of the concert highlights for me, I’ve sung Dirty Old Town, The Lifeboat Mona, Oh, I Know that Peggy wrote that one, I babble The Shoals of Herring, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, Champion at Keeping Them Rolling and The Thirty-Foot TrailerAnd I’ve sung them in over fifty years of singing and playing in folk groups.
He didn’t look impressed, and his expression seemed to say, Is that all? And so, we turned back to the tide where crates of wine and whiskey were being opened by the other pair and, clearly, as this was a task that took precedence, we hurried to take our part in the rescuing of vital stores lying there on the beach. I told them that I had prepared a camp just in through the trees where they could take their ease and meet some of the other castaways. We spend a time transporting the goods up to the campsite and as the sun was setting, we sat around the fire and shared some food and wine and yarned and told tall tales as is the custom when men meet to establish bragging rights. Ewan MacColl stuck a finger in his left ear and invited me to sing along as he cleared his throat and sang. [insert song]
He said, I recorded all the old fishermen up and down the east coast of Britain and knit together their words with rhymes of mine to produce a true song of the people. He winked at me and then turned to one of his companions and said, Captain Burgess, I think you know a sea shanty or two. One that even features you! Burgess, a stern-looking man with a flowing silver moustache which linked up with bushy mutton-chop sideburns, gave MacColl the stink-eye and rasped with a Yankee twang,
I worked for a living in the great era of sailing ships. You had to do more than just sing a few pretty tunes to keep the men under control and to keep your ship on course and on time. As well as deliver the cargo whole, what with the bulk of the crew nothing but thieves and good-for-nothings! Such a man, I thought, would pose a challenge for HR departments today. But in the interests of camaraderie, I put in cheerfully, I’ll bet you have a store of tales from the great days of sailing ships! He gave me a long look and retorted, I don’t think you would have lasted long on the Davy Crockett, my man!
But he had a gleam in his eye as he began to relive his glory days. She was a medium clipper ship built in 1853 by Greenman & Co., Mystic, CT, at a cost of $93.000. She was over 218 feet long and weighted 1547 tons. Rigged with double fore and main topsails, and three skysails, admitted by all to be one of the fastest sailing ships! But fast isn’t everything, when I captained her, she was known for always delivering her cargoes in perfect condition and order! Merchants everywhere clamoured for her custom. Yes, yes, interjected Ewan MacColl in mock earnest, but what about that song that you feature in?
You’re referring to the one with the verse, I have signed on a Yankee Clipper ship/Davy Crockett is her name/And Burgess is the Captain of her/And they say she’s a floating Hell.// I know that one, I pipe up. Everyone does, thundered Burgess in exasperation, but how many know the verse, that so many versions leave out- I have shipped with Burgess once before/And I think I know him well/If a man’s a seaman, he can get along/If not, then he’s sure in Hell//Now that, I’ll stand by! Nothing worse than whiny dogs who moan about how hard everything is. Why, once I had to put down a mutiny! On April 20, 1874, we were cleared to sail from San Francisco for Liverpool with a cargo wheat when the crew objected to their conditions and delayed the departure for five days. Five days I lost!
In the hiatus that followed, I decided that poetry might soothe the savage breast of the incensed Captain: I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,/And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;/And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,/And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.//I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide is a wild call and clear call that may not be denied/And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,/And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying// I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,/To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;/And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,/And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.// [insert song]
The long trick’s over for all of us here, I mused, and all that’s left is this circle around the fire as we eat, drink, and reminisce. I know a sea shanty we used to sing to keep our spirits up as we hauled the anchor or the raised the sails. I looked across at the speaker. He was the other member of the trio on the dory. A man in his early twenties by the look of him, dressed in long, loose trousers with a Monmouth cap on his head. He held a white shirt in his hands and was deftly sewing a rent in the arm.
I remember returning to Cobh after a long stint at sea. We limped past Roche’s Point and as we rounded Spike Island- the cheers that went up! We couldn’t wait to get ashore and into our favourite taverns. Oh, how we would make the rafters roar! Where, exactly, is the holy ground? I enquired. Scuttlebutt will have it that it refers to the red-light district, he said, pulling on his mended shirt, but I reckon it’s Ireland. Nothing of the sort! God’s own country is Maine in the U S of A, exclaimed Burgess. You need your head read, scoffed MacColl. Gentlemen, gentlemen we can all agree that our own particular places are to us, holy places.
Ever the pacifier, I felt I had to intervene before tempers began to boil. The Holy Ground exists outside the lusty taverns of 19th Century, Cork. There is sacred ground everywhere, and some, say with the perspective of astronauts looking back at the blue dot from the vastness of space, would characterise all of this earth as holy or sacred ground. That so much of it (to say nothing of the waters around and flowing through it; or the air which passes over it) is despoiled by violence and pollution and injustice makes one wonder if Gaia herself is unleashing pestilence such as COVID-19 to teach us a salutary lesson to say nothing of the tsunamis, earthquakes, firestorms, floods and famines that remind us of Biblical times. Sorry to preach, I say in response to the searching gaze they subject me to. Maybe we should just sing that wonderful song! [insert song]
And as the rousing chorus of The Holy Ground fades, we see the fire-lit faces of the quartet in the campsite, and we notice that other denizens washed up on the enchanted island are drifting into the space and so the circle widens as music rings out again. CYA.
Credits: All written text, song lyrics and music (including background music) written and composed by Quentin Bega unless otherwise specified in the credits section after individual posts. Illustrative excerpts from other texts identified clearly within each podcast. I donate to and use Wikipedia frequently as one of the saner sources of information on the web.
Technical Stuff: Microphone- Shure SM58; (for the podcast spoken content) Audio Technica AT 2020 front-facing with pop filter); Apogee 76K also used for songs and spoken text.
For recording and mixing down: 64-bit N-Track Studio 9 Extended used; Rubix 22 also used for mixing of microphone(s) and instruments. I use the Band in a Box/RealBand 2022 combo for music composition.