“Shanties aren’t all the same,” says Keith Kendrick. They might be repetitive by definition, but Kendrick, alongside Tom and Barbara Brown, Jackie Oates, Jeff Warner and Doug Bailey (of WildGoose Records), is here to illustrate the variety that the genre offers.
The six-piece (with some help from the likes of Sam Lee and Jim McGeean) have worked together on three volumes of shanties collected by Somerset sailor John Short (who presented the songs to Cecil Sharp in 1914 – hence the snappy title). But this was a rare chance to enjoy the songs live. And in front of a Sidmouth crowd well versed in traditional song, an added bonus is that the ‘call-and-response’ songs get a hearty uptake. Volume is key, and the crowd play the ‘response’ part with great enthusiasm from the very beginning.
And Kendrick is right: there is plenty of variety to be had. There’s a powerful Billy Reilly (a short-haul shanty), and an unexpectedly jaunty Shallow Brown, before Oates and Barbara Brown take the lead on a version of Fire Down Below, which is accompanied by viola, concertina and melodeon.
The group intersperse the songs with stories of Short’s adventures, which puts them in context. We learn what cotton-screwing is, and hear tales of mourning and maritime disaster. Short’s own notes of a trip around Cape Horn are followed by a version of Around The Corner Sally (the ‘corner’ being the cape), while mention of deserters prompts Lucy Long, a shanty which tells of the sexual escapades of sailors abroad.
All the performers are capable, confident singers – Kendrick’s lovely, warm voice in particular stands out as he leads Poor Old Man, while Warner’s American accent (and appealing banjo-playing) wraps nicely around He Back She Back, which opens with a most unsavoury line about shooting a bear in the backside. It’s unusual to hear the usually more delicately minded Oates belting out such hearty standards – even more so to hear her accusing a couple of women of being “the two biggest whores in Whitemoor Lane” – but her delivery is as compelling as ever. Later, she turns Boney Was a Warrior into something resembling a lullaby – quite an achievement.
The group cleverly conclude the show as a sea voyage would end. Warner leads a lovely, breezy take on Won’t You Go My Way, before a trio of homeward-bound songs, and then a warm, moving Leave Her Johnny, which would have been sung as the ship was pumped dry. They end with Crossing the Bar, a Tennyson poem that was recited at Short’s funeral. It’s an apt end to an interesting, nicely conceived and (yes, Kendrick was right) diverse show. And performers and audience alike still have the voice for an encore…