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'Rogue's Gallery:' Songs of the Sea

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'Rogue's Gallery:' Songs of the Sea

'Rogue's Gallery:' Songs of the Sea

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Songs of the sea, songs about drinking and women and death and nasty crimes on the water. Forty-three of those songs fill a new two-CD set, produced by Hal Willner. A few of those songs are way too spicy to be played here. Instead, here's a lament titled A Dying Sailor to His Shipmates, sung by Bono.

(Soundbite of song, "A Dying Sailor to His Shipmates")

BONO (Singer): (Singing) Oh wrap me in my country's flag and lay me in the cold blue sea. That the roaring of the waves, my solemn requiem be.

NORRIS: Producer Hal Willner is known for his tribute records - the music of Thelonious Monk, Kurt Weill, Harold Arlen. This idea germinated on the set of the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie with actor Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski.

These are sailing songs more than pirate songs, really. Sea shanties, work songs, stories of life at sea. It was up to Hal Willner to find the songs, record a lot of them and then narrow them down.

Mr. HAL WILLNER (Producer): When I was first offered this project, you know, it just immediately had the prerequisite of everything I ever looked for in a project, which is mostly I know nothing about the subject.

BLOCK: So you could dive in and learn everything fresh.

Mr. WILLNER: Oh, absolutely. And then perhaps however many people come across the record will go on that same journey I did.

BLOCK: Well, it starts out with quite a bang, sea shanties more than seven minutes long. Cape Cod Girls.

Mr. WILLNER: That Cape Cod Girls is performed by the legendary, wonderful Baby Gramps. He's a man that you do not know if he's, you know, 50 or 90. Looks like Mr. Natural and sings like a Tuvin throat singer Popeye.

(Soundbite of song, "Cape Cod Girls")

BABY GRAMPS (Singer): (Singing) And now the Cape Cod girls don't use no pills, bound away, bound away. They get that pimp from the codfish gills on the way to Australia. Heave her up, my bully bully boys. Bound away, bound away.

Mr. WILLNER: I approached this record. It was so great cause I got to be, I didn't have to answer to any artists. It was totally seat of the pants. We went to different cities and started making phone calls. Are you available this afternoon, tomorrow? Put together a house band and just went. Some people were called the morning of.

So we were in Seattle and found out that Baby Gramps has been living there. And we contacted him and he came over the next day.

BLOCK: Baby Gramps sounds like he was born to sing this song.

Mr. WILLNER: He has. This song is one that he knew.

BLOCK: A lot of these songs are, of course, are lubricated by a whole lot of drinking. And I guess there's no better example of just pure drunken debauchery than Bully in the Alley.

(Soundbite of song, "Bully in the Alley")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Help me, Bob, there's a bully in the alley. Way, hey, a bully in the alley. Help me, Bob, there's a bully in the alley. Bully down in Shinbone Al. Well, Sally got down and dirty last night. Way, hey, a bully in the alley. Sally got down and she cried.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: I laugh every time they come to that part of the song.

Mr. WILLNER: I'm very happy you picked this song. We'll sell dozens now. Actually, I have almost a 2-year-old son who that is, you know, hands down his favorite song in the record. Every time it starts, starts waving his arms around, smiling. There's something there.

BLOCK: Yeah. And who cares about meter when you're so drunk, right?

Mr. WILLNER: They were drunk. I know. I was there. That's the way David sings. He's the lead singer. Timing doesn't mean a whole lot to him. And I love though one they mess up. We kept a mistake in there, when the band jumps in. They can't find where they are.

(Soundbite of song, "Bully in the Alley")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Help me, Bob, there's a bully in the alley. Way, hey, a bully in the alley. Help me, Bob, there's a bully in the alley.

BLOCK: There are a couple of songs here that Sting sings and one from Bono. What's it like when you're approaching them with a project like this? What did you say?

Mr. WILLNER: Well, I know them both from - Sting actually sang on my Kurt Weill record 20 years ago. Probably suffered greatly for it. They ended putting him in a show. And, you know, since his success, the purists and the rockers think a certain way of him. But it's, I just love, he just will try things and not be afraid if it doesn't go right. But it seemed that he was perfect for this cause I know his background. He knew a lot of these songs.

And actually gave him the only sea shanty I really knew. He came and did Blood Red Roses with the house band.

(Soundbite of song, "Blood Red Roses")

STING (Singer): (Singing) Our boots and clothes are all in pawn, go down, you blood red roses, go down. Its flaming draft around Cape Horn, go down, you blood red roses, go down. Oh, you pinks and posies, go down, you blood red roses, go down.

Mr. WILLNER: A lot of people who have heard this record and really a lot of the hardcore kind of punk papers and all that didn't know it was him when the song started. And just went, wow, this is really good. So I actually e-mailed Sting and said, hey, stick with me. I'll have you back in CBGBs in no time.

BLOCK: Whether you want to be or not.

(Soundbite of song, "Blood Red Roses")

STING: (Singing) Go down, you blood red roses, go down.

BLOCK: When you sat down to try to think about how you wanted these CDs to sound, were you thinking about what you didn't want to make? In other words, you didn't want it to be maybe a caricature of the pirate song.

Mr. WILLNER: Absolutely. I told, a lot of these songs I knew were going to be funny enough. Though a lot are very beautiful and sad, I knew there was going to be a lot of, you know, get to titles to Baltimore Whores and Boney Was a Warrior, all these songs about napoleon when they call him Boney. Little Boy Billee sang by Ralph Steadman, the artist, about eating the cabin boy.

The wrong thing to do would've been trying to be funny. No arrging. No glugging, you know, just keep all those pirate and sailor caricatures out of the picture.

BLOCK: Hal Willner, thanks very much.

Mr. WILLNER: Thank you.

BLOCK: Hal Willner produced the two CD set titled Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs and Shanties. You can hear more music of the high seas at our Web site,

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