Thursday, February 18, 2010

Salty Dogs: Ewan MacColl & A.L. Lloyd's Handsome Cabin Boy

I’ve always loved sea shanties (much to the amusement of my friend David Churchill). Maybe this odd affection dates back to my childhood because the first record I ever owned was “Blow the Man Down.” But I’ve always been taken by their mournful melodies, the unusual tales they told (sometimes ghostly, often times weird) and the singers sounding like long, lost adventurers dead drunk on the sea.

Sea shanties would appear in odd places, too, like The Byrds doing “Jack Tarr the Sailor” on The Ballad of Easy Rider (1969), or Harry Nilsson performing the mock shanty “Black Sails” on Pussy Cats (1974). But my favourite sea shanty album is Blow Boys Blow (1960) by Ewan MacColl & A.L. Lloyd. This collection of classic tunes has a number of uproarious salty stories ("Do Me Anna"), sea adventures ("Banks of Newfoundland") and character portraits ("Old Billy Riley"). The most memorable song, though, is "Handsome Cabin Boy." The story in this tune falls into the category of strangely funny. A young girl finds her way onto a ship by disguising herself as a boy. The disguise works fine until, one day, she becomes pregnant. So...who impregnated the Handsome Cabin Boy? MacColl and Lloyd explore the dilemma with self-conscious bemusement and a crooked smile.

Although many have covered the track (including Frank Zappa), the only version I could find on YouTube was by Kate Bush. Bush included it on the B-side of her 1985 single "Hounds of Love." If anyone could get the pure weirdness of the track, I thought, it had to be Kate Bush with her tremelo voice. Bush did indeed capture the pining ambiance of the melody. She also sings it from the view of the “cabin boy” rather than the newly troubled sailors. But, sadly, in her hands, “Handsome Cabin Boy” becomes a tale of woe, almost tragic, rather than a comic tale of sexual misadventure. Leaving her quirky humour at home that day, Kate Bush appears to miss the joke. Ewan MacColl and A.L. Lloyd, if you are fortunate enough to find Blow Boys Blow, certainly didn't.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author of the forthcoming book, Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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