COMMUNION RITES: Songs as Unifying Events

Updated: Jan 20


Here's Scottish postman Nathan Evans and the man's post that has made him an international meme:


Rebecca Renner of this morning's (1-13-21) New York Times relates how Evans's original video on Tik-Tok has in two short weeks become the rage across internet platforms, shared and reshared. Irish cultural historian Gerry Smyth says that this is just the latest, high-tech incarnation of the "communitarian aesthetic" of the sea shanty: the songs offered crews who were of many different nationalities a common language that was also a kind of musical work direction, establishing a shared rhythm and making the work feel lighter.. There were songs for chasing the whales and hauling the sails. According to Michael Dyer of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, this one may have been a "cutting-in" shanty sung while butchering the catch. Whale flensing, as it was called, was gross, onerous work that among other things involved severing the tale and crew members lowering themselves into the body and head cavity, becoming thoroughly coated in blood and viscera. No wonder they sang!

My book I GUESS I FORGIVE YOU describes the discovery by abolitionist Charles Pickard Ware of the song "Michael Row the Boat Ashore" and how, rather than a spiritual depicting a voyage to heaven guided by the archangel, the campfire favorite was actually a practical work song for transportation of persons and cargo by boat, a common necessity in the Sea Islands. His journal reveals how specifically the work was timed to the song:


“As I have written these tunes, two measures are to be sung to each stroke, the first measure being accented by the beginning of the stroke, the second by the rattle of the oars in the row-locks. On the passenger boat at the [Beaufort] ferry, they rowed from sixteen to thirty strokes a minute; twenty-four was the average. 'Michael row’ was used when the load was heavy or the tide was against us…."


The popularity of Evans' shanty post and the subsequent duets by musicians, instrumentalists, and techno beatmakers, is only further proof of the core premise in I GUESS I FORGIVE YOU: songs are unifying events. I will certainly be checking out Gerry Smyth's new book; here it is:


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