Superb collection of maritime songs and sea shanties performed by the cream of Britain’s folk musicians.
Britain is a maritime nation. The sea has long defined British identity, in terms of both how Britons view themselves and how their country is regarded abroad. It’s also shaped the way Britain trades goods and the language; maritime expressions, such as “taken aback”, “batten down” and “log” are used on a daily basis, usually without any awareness on the part of the user of their source.
The sea has inevitably influenced British music. Sea shanties from the 19th and 20th century have mythologised the harsh, unforgiving and sometimes romantic life at sea. These songs have found themselves into the repertoire of many contemporary British folk singers. The ‘Sea Song Sessions’ album brings together 13 British maritime folk songs and sea shanties, performed by some of the cream of British folk music: Jon Boden, Seth Lakeman, Ben Nicholls, Emily Portman and Jack Rutter.
This record came about when, in 2021, Boden, Lakeman, Nicholls, Portman and Rutter were asked to prepare an evening of sea-related songs for the Folkestone Festival. The songs were recorded live over two days in a farm building constructed entirely out of hay bales located on the Sussex Downs. They chose to record material from each artist’s repertoire, traditional songs and some which were newly written for these sessions.
The album commences with Seth Lakeman’s take on ‘The Rambling Sailor’. It’s based on Maddy Prior and Tim Hart’s version recorded in 1968. It’s a tale of the free and easy dealings of the sailor young Johnson with women, an attitude popularly supposed to be typical of seafarers of the time. ‘The Dreadnaught (Bound Away)’ celebrates one of the fastest of all sailing ships. This clipper was built in 1853 to compete with the steamships of that period. Jack Rutter sings the lead vocals ably backed by the rest of the collective.
Emily Portman delivers a spell-binding performance of ‘Rock ’n’ Row Me Over’, a song which often goes by the title of ‘One More Day’. This shanty is about sailors approaching the end of their voyage with the land and their loved ones in sight. ‘Jack And The Bear Skin’ is a humorous tale first published in the 1880s, delivered by the wonderful baritone of Jack Rutter. One of the purposes of this song was to reassure loved ones left on land that their menfolk would return safely, although possibly ‘transmogrified’ by enormous beards thanks to the use of bears’ grease.
‘The Good Ship Anny’, written by Seth Lakeman, is the sole instrumental on the album. It’s followed by the Jon Boden led ‘Fire Marengo’ a song he’s previously performed as part of Bellowhead and his 2010 project “A Folk Song a Day”. It’s about forcing the bales of cotton into the holds of ships until they were packed solid, which was one of the hardest shipboard tasks. Emily Portman sings a fine version of Lal Waterson and Oliver Knight’s ‘Some Old Salty’, a song which by referencing Brenda Lee makes it the most contemporary one on the record.
The album closes with Boden leading on the Victorian ballad ‘Deep Blue Sea’ accompanied just by piano and the close harmonies of Lakeman, Nicholls, Portman, and Rutter. It was a song originally made popular by Pete Seeger in the 1950s. This spiritual and evocative version is a masterful way to end this beautifully performed and recorded album, which captures some of the best British folk singers at the top of their game.