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Boxing Day Shanties

December 27, 2007

I'm a fan of sea shanties. Not a very hip thing to admit, but there's something about the sparse harmonies, the communal aspect (the way everyone in the room gets to join in with the choruses) and the barnacle-encrusted lyrics that transports me to another world.

When I heard that my favorite local shantie band, Salty Walt and the Rattlin' Ratlines, would be performing at one of my favorite local pubs -- The Pelican Inn at Muir Beach -- I decided to make an afternoon of it. I just couldn't resist this Boxing Day combo.

I've heard Salty Walt perform in a couple of other settings before, but The Pelican has to be my favorite. The group plays at the monthly shantie sing on the Balclutha historic boat at Fisherman's Wharf and also does a regular slot at The Edinburgh Castle pub in San Francisco. The Pelican proved to be the superior venue because much though I love the Edinburgh Castle, the Pelican is so much cozier and conducive to hunkering down with a pint of grog and a pie while listening to rousing live music. And while the Balclutha is an atmospheric place to stage a shantie concert, there's something altogether too formal about sitting on a deck of a boat with about 500 other people listening politely to songs that really should be slogged to (e.g. by hauling heavy ropes or swabbing desks) or drunk to. Not that participation isn't encouraged at the Balclutha event. It's just that you can't really talk and you certainly can't drink while the music's playing.

The Pelican Inn gig was also quite different to other sets I've heard Salty Walt play. It mostly consisted of ancient English wassails (plus a long strophic shantie sung to the tune of "The First Noel" whose refrain comically substituted "Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel" for "no whales, no whales, no whales, no whales..."). Some of the lyrics were really lovely in a rustic kind of a way. Here's a couple of verses from "The Trees are all Bare" to give you an idea (many thanks to Walt for handing out song sheets so we could all join in or follow along):

The trees are all bare, not a leaf to be seen
And the meadows their beauty have lost
Now winter has come and 'tis cold for man and beast,
And the streams they are
And the streams they are all fast bound down with frost.

'Twas down in the farmyard where the oxen feed on straw,
They send forth their breath like steam.
Sweet Betsy the milkmaid now quickly she must go,
For flakes of ice she finds
For flakes of ice she finds a-floating on her cream.

The best thing about the afternoon was that no matter how badly we all sang -- and believe me, we did sing badly owing both to a general unfamiliarity with the songs and the flowing booze -- it sounded great. Or at least I thought it did, which I suppose amounts to more or less the same thing given the context.

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