Rock Icons Sing Pirate Songs On 'Son Of Rogues Gallery'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Sea chanteys aren't my thing, but I've really been enjoying the new compilation of pirate ballads, sea songs and chanteys interpreted by Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Michael Stipe, Richard Thompson, Macy Gray, Iggy Pop and others. The album is called "Son of Rogue's Gallery," because it's the sequel to a 2006 compilation called "Rogues Gallery." Both were produced by my guest, Hal Willner. He came up with a pirate song concept with Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski, when they were on the set of the second "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie.
Willner is known for producing tribute albums with new interpretations of Nino Rota, Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, Kurt Weill, and songs from classic Disney animated films. Since 1980, Willner's worked on "Saturday Night Live," handling music for sketches.
Let's start with a song from "Son of Rogue's Gallery." This is Shane MacGowan of the Irish band The Pogues, doing "Leaving of Liverpool."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAVING OF LIVERPOOL")
SHANE MACGOWAN: (Singing) Fare thee well, (unintelligible). There were many fare-thee-wells. I am bound for California, a place I know right well. So fare thee well, my own true love. When I return, united we will be. It's not the leaving of Liverpool that grieves me, but my darling when I think of thee.
(Singing) Oh, I've (unintelligible) the pilot once before. I think I know him well. The captain's name is Burgess, (unintelligible). So farewell thee well, my own true love. When I return, united we will be. It's not the leaving of Liverpool that grieves me, but my darling, when I think of thee.
GROSS: That's Shane MacGowan from the new Hal Willner anthology "Son of Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys." Hal Willner, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's really a pleasure to have you.
HAL WILLNER: Thank you.
GROSS: He sure growls that one. Tell us about Shane MacGowan and why he belongs on this collection.
WILLNER: Oh, he was one of the first ones that we thought belonged on the collection. In fact, he's sung piece titled songs forever. I mean, he's a true pirate. He's - I know he's got a reputation, but...
GROSS: A reputation for what?
WILLNER: Outrageous behavior, a lot of alcohol in his act. And once you get past the fact that he talks like White Fang from Soupy Sales...
WILLNER: Right? (makes funny sounds) And start to understand what he says, he's one of the most well-read, sophisticated people I've ever met. It's incredible. So he knew exactly what he wanted to do, and then he went into the vocal booth and nailed it in take one, perfectly. And then you saw that weird, Nosferatu vampire face through the glass smiling at you.
GROSS: And I'll tell you. I'll make a confession to you Hal Willner. I've never thought of myself as liking sea chanteys. I've kind of avoided them. I listen to a lot of music. That's one form I've kind of avoided. And now I think oh, yeah. These are great songs. When you started researching pirate songs, did you go into the history of the songs, too? Did you just want the music, or did you want like a larger context for the songs?
WILLNER: I did a bit of research into the history. I mean, one had to, especially when just listening to those amazing Folkways Smithsonian recordings of real sailors singing it, because they would explain the history and where it came from and what they added to it. So - and then also seeing all the different places they were written at or came from. It was consistent: Liverpool, Cape Cod, some in Australia - places that, you know, there were ports. Interesting, Sean Lennon, who's on the record, told me about how much his dad loved and was influenced by these songs - once again, Liverpool, one of the big ports. And if one listens carefully to some of The Beatles things, you will hear certain lines from some of these songs in it.
GROSS: I want to play another track, and this one is by Tom Waits, accompanied by Keith Richards. They've performed together before. You said they were supposed to be on the first volume of your sea chantey and pirate songs...
GROSS: ...but because of timing, they didn't make it. First of all, what's it like to watch the two of them work together? They're both such big personalities and interesting people.
WILLNER: To be honest, they weren't in the studio at the same time, but it didn't matter...
GROSS: Oh, no wonder they get along so well.
GROSS: I'm kidding.
WILLNER: No, they don't need to be in the same studio. I mean it's - both of them I've worked with quite a bit. Tom was one of the first people on our records from '85 . And...
GROSS: He sang "Hi-Ho" - was it - "The Work Song."
GROSS: Yeah. Hi-ho, hi-oh, it's off to work we go.
WILLNER: "Hi-Ho" and "What Keeps Mankind Alive."
GROSS: Oh, yeah.
WILLNER: And so I've known him since the mid-80s. And Keith, we did - was on the Charles Mingus record we did, "Lord Don't Drop That Atomic Bomb." And I've recorded him with Marianne Faithfull. So there was already a comfort thing there. But Tom, though he could be one of the great spontaneous artists, doesn't really work that way. So it was a long process to pick the right song, and then we tried it three different ways.
GROSS: There's a chorus behind him. Is that Waits' overdubbing himself?
WILLNER: Yeah. That's a chorus of Toms, with Keith sailing over it. Once again, we tried it with a rhythm section, tried it with a jazz band, and then he fell in love with a version that was done by Ex-Seamen's Institute, where it was a call-and-response thing. And he just went and recorded this orchestra of Waits, and then Keith came in later and, like, what do I do on this?
WILLNER: And we worked on it - for him, it's a long time to work two or three hours. But he found it, and that smile came on his face when he did, and beautifully sang along. Once again, they know each other so well. They started working together on "Rain Dogs." I mean, they might as well have been in the same room.
GROSS: OK. So this is Tom Waits with Keith Richards doing the classic "Shenandoah."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHENANDOAH")
TOM WAITS: (Singing) For 10 long years, I courted Sally away, you rolling river. She broke my heart here in this valley. Away, we're bound away across the wide Missouri. The Missouri, she's a mighty river. Away, you rolling river. The Missouri, she's a mighty river. Away, we're bound away, across the wide Missouri.
(Singing) Oh, Shenandoah, I'll not deceive you. Away, you rolling river. Oh, Shenandoah, I'll never grieve you. Away, we're bound away, across the wide Missouri.
GROSS: That's Tom Waits and Keith Richards performing "Shenandoah" from the new collection of pirate ballads, sea songs and chanteys called "Son of Rogue's Gallery."
Now, this is probably the best-known song, or one of the best-known songs on the album. And did you say it was Waits who chose it?
WILLNER: Yeah. I sent him - in the case of Tom, I sent him of a lot more songs than I would normally send. But, at the end of it, he just - I think it was maybe the Ex-Seamen's, as opposed to the song itself. Maybe it was a song he always wanted to do. And it is - it does fit into - this type of song, it fits into a lot of ways. It's probably the hallelujah of its day.
WILLNER: He said, well, there's something about "Shenandoah." So, yeah, be my guest.
GROSS: My guest is Hal Willner. He produced the new compilation "Son of Rogue's Gallery." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're talking with Hal Willner about producing the new compilation "Son of Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys."
Now, you said one of the things that you found in your research going through pirate songs was pirate poems.
GROSS: And one of those poems is sung by Mary Margaret O'Hara, whose work I'm not familiar with. I'd like to get to know it now. I think this is a terrific track. Would you tell us a little bit about this poem and her approach to turning it into a song?
WILLNER: Well, I love exposing people to things. Now, Mary Margaret O'Hara is from Canada, and from a very talented family. Her sister is Catherine O'Hara, the actor.
GROSS: Right, the actress who started on SCTV and...
GROSS: And was in "Home Alone" films and...
WILLNER: Also brilliant and quirky.
GROSS: Oh, and in a lot of those Christopher Guest documentaries.
WILLNER: Yeah. Mary, I met her when she was in a band called go Go Deo Chorus. She went out on her own, and she made one of the greatest records I've ever heard in my life. "Miss America" came out in the '80s, and she's not really put out another solo record since. But she's, you know, came out of a cave or something. You don't hear any influences. Everything she does is a surprise, and every emotion you'll get listening to her.
GROSS: Did you choose the poem and give it to her?
WILLNER: No, I gave her the book of poetry. Mary will often, when coming into one of these projects, not decide on what she wants to do until she's already on stage or in the studio.
WILLNER: And then at the end of the day, she picked up this book of poetry, and just started going through it and cutting up different poems and just singing the lyrics. The band was in the room, and they just started playing behind her. But, I mean, it's always the perfect way to end the records.
GROSS: And so this is Mary Margaret O'Hara singing the poem "Then Said the Captain to Me."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEN SAID THE CAPTAIN TO ME")
MARY MARGARET O'HARA: (Singing) When all the sea's high ships have dropped beyond my sky. And life's trumpet leaves my lips and women pass me by. Dear God, let me die. Dear God, let me die. Dear God, let me die. When all the sea's high ships have dropped beyond my sky, and life's trumpet leaves my lips and women pass me by. Dear God, let me die. Dear God, let me to. Dear God, let me die. Dear God, let me die.
When all the sea's high ships have dropped beyond my sky. And life's trumpet leaves my lips and women pass me by. Dear God, let me die. Dear God, let me die. Dear God, let me die. Nothing but damn fools sail, nothing but damn fools sail the sea, said the captain to me. I have a young son, says the captain to me. I don't believe he ever shall sail the sea. Nothing but damn fools sail the sea, said the captain to me. I have a young son, says the captain to me.
GROSS: That's Mary Margaret O'Hara from the second volume of "Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys," produced by my guest Hal Willner. And this volume is called "Son of Rogue's Gallery."
I love the way she sings let me die. And I'm surprised. I'm...
WILLNER: Yeah, she...
GROSS: I'm surprised the poem isn't called that.
WILLNER: No. But that was a line, obviously, that she latched onto while she was singing it. Again, she did not rehearse this. She just started going through the book and singing it. So, obviously, she tuned into the same line you just did and kept repeating it: Let me die, let me die. And, I mean, there's a period to this, you know, to show the other side that these sea voyages were not all joyful.
GROSS: Let's hear another song from your new collection of pirate songs and sea chanteys. And the album's called "Son of Rogue's Gallery" because it's volume two. My guest is Hal Willner, who produced these albums. And the next song that I want to play is "Pirate Jenny," which isn't really a pirate song, per se. It's a show tune.
GROSS: I mean, it's from "Threepenny Opera," the great Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht collaboration. So I thought it was an interesting, surprising choice for this. And the performer is somebody who I am not familiar with. I was prepared to not like because I thought, oh, gosh knows what they're going to do with this. I love the "Threepenny Opera." But I think it's really quite good. So tell us a little bit about the performer, how you know her and why you chose her.
WILLNER: Well, this is how this happened. In this one, Larry "Ratso" Sloman took Nick Cave and I to see Shilpa Ray, who plays harmonium. She had a band called Shilpa Ray and the Happy Hookers. And watching her was just, you know, right away one of those this-artist-is-incredible. "Pirate Jenny" is - I see it as a sea song, but it was also - it was the one I was not going to have on the record, because what does one do with it that hasn't been done? Dylan always stated "Pirate Jenny" as the song that showed him where writing - where songwriting can go.
GROSS: So you thought that Shilpa Ray was right for "Pirate Jenny." Did she know the song?
WILLNER: No, didn't. So once again...
GROSS: So how did you introduce her to the song? Did you give her an album or sheet music?
WILLNER: I gave her three different versions - I mean, four, maybe. You know, Lotte Lenya's, Nina Simone's, Ellen Greene's from - and Bea Arthur from the old soundtracks. And she got the attitude and came in and killed it. And being that Nick Cave has taken an interest in her, took her on the road with him, they were totally up for Nick and Warren Ellis participating on the track. So they overdubbed some subtle parts.
GROSS: Yeah. And he's doing some very quiet backup vocals on it.
WILLNER: And piano. Yeah.
GROSS: Hmm. OK. OK. So this is Shilpa Ray singing the Kurt Weill-Burtolt Brecht song "Pirate Jenny," and it's from the new collection of pirate ballads, sea songs and chanteys called "Son of Rogue's Gallery."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIRATE JENNY")
SHILPA RAY: (Singing) All right. You people can watch while I'm scrubbing these floors, and I'm scrubbing these floors while you're gawking. Maybe once you tip me and it makes you feel swell in this crummy southern town in this bitter hotel. But you'll never guess to who you're talking. No, you'll never guess to who you're talking. Then one night, there's a scream in the night, and you wonder who could that have been.
(Singing) And you see me kind of grinning while I'm scrubbing and you say, well, what she's got to grin? Well, I'll tell you. There's a ship, the Black Freighter, with a skull on its masthead coming in. There's a ship, the Black Freighter, with a skull on its masthead coming in. Well, you gentlemen say, hey, gal, finish them floors. What's wrong with you? Earn your keep here. And you toss me your tips and you look to the ships, but I'm counting your heads as I'm making the beds. 'Cause nobody's gonna sleep here tonight. Nobody's sleep here tonight.
GROSS: Music from the new compilation album "Son of Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys," which was produced by Hal Willner. Thanks for talking with us about it. Coming up, David Bianculli reviews the new HBO movie "Phil Spector," written and directed by David Mamet, starring Al Pacino. This is FRESH AIR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.