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WITH INTRODUCTION BY
ADMIRAL SIR CYPRIAN BRIDGE
AT THE CLARENDON PRESS
How far is a collection of Sea Songs a monument to the memory of poets and musicians who have endeavoured to represent the taste and spirit of sea-faring folk, or a record of compositions commonly sung by sailors to audiences of their brethren? This question is nearly sure to meet every one whose experience goes back to the time when seamen tried to relieve the monotony of a long voyage and entertain their shipmates by singing—to tunes never made the subject of musical notation—songs never reduced to writing. Most of these have disappeared beyond hope of recovery. A few have been preserved, but have been so altered in the process of preservation that they only faintly resemble the originals. The Introduction to this little volume is surely a proper place in which to remind or for the first time inform landsmen that, till a date within living memory, British sailors had a set of folk-songs of their own; composed and sung by their own minstrels; and almost, perhaps quite, unknown to their fellow countrymen on shore.
We should have to go back to a remote period in order to reach the days in which these songs were the only ones
that sailors cared to listen to or to sing. Though they have now been completely supplanted by the compositions of regular song-writers and musicians, the process of supplanting them has been slow in operation. In its gradual extension we may trace the history of the lessening isolation of seamen as a class, of their increasing association with the rest of their fellow men.
The old and true sea songs were peculiar in construction and in melody. Occasionally there was real poetry in them, but it was poetry of the thought or idea, not of the phraseology. The versification was simple; there was much latitude as to rhymes and as to metre; and most of the airs might have seemed monotonous to ears accustomed to more highly developed music. These airs sometimes lent themselves to the expression of gentle melancholy, and the minstrels who managed, as many of them did manage, to infuse into their performance a slight element of sadness could always hold the attention of an audience. There was something moving in the contrast between the perfect silence with which a crowd of men closely packed in a small space listened to each stanza and the volume of sound
put forth by earnest voices in the chorus. In the Royal Navy the term sea song was unknown. What landsmen would have so designated, blue-jackets called 'Fore-bitters'. The stage or rostrum on which the singer took his place was the fore-bitts—a stout construction of timber near the fore-mast through which
many of the principal ropes were led. This raised him some three feet above his audience, who squatted on the deck, on coils of rope, or on the trucks and brackets of neighbouring gun-carriages. In the Fore-bitter the singer had no accompaniment. He trusted to his voice alone. The songs were almost always of great length, and any failure of
memory on the part of the singer was practically unknown. As they were not written down they could have been learned only by listening to them often and attentively.
The sentiment was invariably unexceptionable. No one could point to a single song of the kind in which there was the smallest taint of lubricity. They usually had some sort of lesson in them, something that might be called a moral. The merits of the brave, the loving, the loyal sailor were, not too noisily, held up for admiration and imitation, neither of which was to fail because courage, and affection, and loyalty had not always sufficed to preserve the hero and bring him back safe to his home and his sweetheart. The kind of female friend to whom there are so many allusions in the sea songs of regular song-writers had no existence in the Fore-bitter. It is certain that no singer who introduced them into his lay would have been listened to. It took a good many years and the complete extinction of the old sea-dogs of King Billy's ' reign or of Queen Victoria's earlier years before the doubleentendres, or worse, of the music halls obtained toler