Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Boats: Dark Eyed Sailor

June Tabor and the Oyster Band: Dark Eyed Sailor


As long as sea-faring cultures have existed, boats and the sea have long been portrayed as both livelihood and life-stealer in our cultural narratives of love and loss; if the predominance of tempted lass tales among traditional folksong are any indicator, the long voyages which separated mate from mate were, indeed, once the biggest scapegoat for temptation an entire community could imagine, more even than beauty or fame.

Here, then, folksong as morality play: a lass responds to a propositioner (why do you roam?) by telling of her long lost love, for whom she waits, and how she wanders distracted with half a ring while the other half lies surely below the deeps; he responds by assuring her she will get over it eventually, but she will have none of it; finally, he reveals himself as her lost William, his proof the other half of the ring in question. Nothing subtle here: they marry, and the moral of the story is spelled out pretty baldly in the final verse as "so maids be loyal when your love's at sea".

You'd expect that, as a product of oral tradition, there would be plenty of different versions of this song out there in the wild. But according to the Digital Tradition Folk Music Database, the song is remarkable in that, while it has been collected from oral tradition hundreds of times throughout the UK and Ireland,

... all versions are virtually the same and can be traced back to one broadside printed in early 19th century. Therefore this song is sometimes cited as a proof for the damaging influence of the broadside on the variety of oral tradition.

Sure enough, this typical "broken token" English ballad has been recorded several essentially interchangeable times in recent history, predominantly by artists such as Christy Moore, Steeleye Span and others from the mid-seventies UK folk rock scene. Brit folk singer June Tabor and folk renegades Oyster Band both come from that tradition, but listening to this take on the song from their 1990 collaborative album Freedom and Rain, it's hard to believe that either of them were ever considered folk -- to me, this is pure upbeat post-Pogues post-punk mid-grunge-era rock, fiddle be damned, and its a surprisingly good fit for the lyric. My, how genre labels change, over time, even as song versions crystallize and turn to stone.


Divinyl said...

Nice song...sailor songs, as opposed to songs specifically about sea-faring craft, didn't even occur to me when I was thinking of posts! I saw June Tabor live last December...review over at my blog if you care to peruse?