As soon as I heard of Sea Songs & Shanties, a new recording by La Nef and Seán Dagher from ATMA, I eagerly obtained it because I had a good idea what I’d find:
And I haven’t been disappointed with the recording that currently holds sway in my car. There are several songs that are new to me that keep running through my head. What greater compliment can a composer have than this? And when we’re speaking of music that’s the product of an oral tradition one must assume that a catchy melody has been sung for a long time by many people. A tune that is meant to get stuck in your head is easier to learn, easier to remember, easier to sing.
That’s what you encounter here, an anthology of songs that invoke a vanished world, a lost culture. It’s all very well to read about the hazards of a voyage, the different sorts of ship, the dreaded press gang. Although one can read about things and know them as facts and details from a book, it’s something else again to get inside the heads of people living in that culture who have a visceral understanding. That is what these songs represent when done correctly. They’re little time capsules bringing us life & death, the blood & the guts from another era with entirely different assumptions.
From the first cut you’re immersed in a whole new world or more precisely, an old world. The language is dense with words no longer in use as if we were suddenly hearing Shakespeare, although it’s not that old nor that poetic. Sometimes the language is tough to decode, a bit of a challenge. The music is never modern sounding, but always direct as folk music must be, speaking plainly.
I think of La Nef as a folk ensemble although they are known for playing early music. I first encountered them a few years ago collaborating with Michael Slattery on Dowland in Dublin, and more recently in performances in Toronto. While we might understand Dowland as early music this was brand new for its experimental reframing of the music in arrangements probing the composer’s possible Celtic roots. Sylvain Bergeron, one of the founding members, played with the Canadian Opera Company orchestra for their production of Handel’s Ariodante this past season.
These Sea Songs offer you a chance to go on a genuine voyage of discovery, to be taken somewhere new. The music sung in a tavern, or the working songs of the sailors on a ship are no less important cultural artifacts just because they don’t bear the name of a famous composer, and are important influences on what we’ve heard since. Recently I sat listening to Ethel Smyth’s The Boatswain‘s Mate, written a little over 100 years ago but at times echoing this much older oral folk music of the sea.
There is at least one song that might be known for its place in higher culture via the plundering hand of John Gay, who wrote The Beggar’s Opera employing popular songs such as “Greensleeves” and “Lillibullero”. The first duet between Polly and MacHeath is set to the song “Over the Hills and far away,” a song that has had several versions over the years, including the one from La Nef on this album. In the space between the two versions is a huge amount of subtext and coded meanings. The allusions are as complex and subtly flavored as a single malt but without the dangers of impairing your driving.
And every one of these sea songs distills the complex allusions and meanings into a few minutes that are like a snapshot. We hear of sailors working proudly, or wanting desperately to get home, of the infectious optimism of men as they get closer to land, of their romances and lost loves.
Yes there’s a lot of testosterone on this album. It’s men singing about men among men. That alone makes it resemble a historical artifact. Some songs have accompaniment, some are a capella, as well they might be when we’re hearing a song sung by sailors on a boat. For all that there’s a remarkable variety to the recording. Seán Dagher who is the Musical Director of La Nef and plays several instruments, sings four solos, Nils Brown sings three solos, Michael Schrey and Clayton Kennedy two each, Nelson Carter, who plays several instruments also sings a solo, while David Gossage & Andrew Horton play more instruments & sing backup vocals.
This is a recording of great imagination, perhaps answering the question “what would it be like to somehow hear sea songs not as concert pieces but in their native element: as if on board a ship?” No we don’t hear winds or waves or sea-birds, so perhaps I exaggerate. And it’s a layered question, as I have no idea which part comes first. Before you can curate the appropriate collection of songs—as Dagher and his team surely had to select songs to play from the much larger tally of possible repertoire—you have to immerse yourself in the music and the culture. You’d have to make choices, to figure out how you wish to perform this music, and not because they’re virtuoso pieces requiring special skills so much as the necessity for authenticity. For other branches of historically informed performance—whether we speak of Bach cantatas, baroque opera or oratorio (and there’s more one could mention)—that has been a decades-long process. For practitioners, we can speak of a shifting understanding of the craft of playing & interpreting and of the compositions themselves. While they didn’t make as pretentious a declaration as what I’m making here, I believe that there are indeed more such branches, including the musics that fall through the cracks, as popular or oral traditions. For example ballads that might have been sung in taverns represent a whole other genre (or series of genres really) for composition & performance, implying a whole series of assumptions. There is one such song on this album, that might have had life as a bit of a ghost story in song form. With these songs we’re dealing with a special series of challenges closer to the fringe of society. Where opera and concert music were the focus of intense scrutiny by critics, listeners and performers (usually including literally centuries of shared pedagogical assumptions about how such songs should be done), popular and folk music complicate those main parameters, especially when the connection to an oral tradition of the past is lost.
While you’ll never find the words to these songs on your karaoke machine, nor are people likely to know the tunes, I wish I could hear them sung in a tavern or on a ship, as they offer one of the most vivid glimpses of a real historical past that one could hope for.