Sea shanties, revisited: Maine couple resurfaces works thought lost to time After a decade of research, a couple from Maine has just published a book of seafaring folk songs rarely heard in the last 80 years.

Sea shanties, revisited: Maine couple resurfaces works thought lost to time

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For the past decade, a folk duo from Maine has been on a mission to find the long-lost melodies of traditional songs that date back as far as the 17th century. Keith Shortall of Maine Public Radio spoke with the couple at their home in Maine's Mid-Coast, where they performed their own versions of some of the scratchy, archived recordings they've uncovered in their research.

KEITH SHORTALL, BYLINE: Julia Lane says since the age of 10, she's been on a quest to find the melodies to go with the well-published, written lyrics about love, longing and the lure of the sea.

JULIA LANE: Very frustrating, you know, finding a great set of lyrics, but no tunes - so throughout my life, I've been looking for books that would include the melodies.

SHORTALL: Lane grew up and formed the folk group Castlebay with her husband, Fred Gosbee. About 20 years ago, they started poring over archives of audio field recordings made by curious folk music collectors in the 1930s and '40s. That's where she found this 1941 recording of Oliver Jenness of York Village, Maine, singing a tune called "The Dreadnaught."


OLIVER JENNESS: (Singing, unintelligible) and all my friends here bound away in the Dreadnaught to the eastward we steer. Bound away...


CASTLEBAY: (Singing) Bound away, where the stormy...

SHORTALL: Lane and Gosbee used the recording to arrange their own version of the song.


CASTLEBAY: (Singing) Bound away, bound away, where the stormy wind blows. Bound away and to the eastward we go.

SHORTALL: "The Dreadnaught," or "Bound Away" as it's also called, is one of 163 melodies that the couple has just published in "Bygone Ballads Of Maine." Lane says it's the book for which she had always searched but never found.

LANE: The one that has all the tunes, that has all the background for all the geeks that are interested in where the song came from, what it's really about, what are the code words in there, what do they mean - all of these things I've always wondered about.

FRED GOSBEE: One of the code words that appears frequently is referring to the tarry sailor.

LANE: Oh, yeah.

GOSBEE: If he's a tarry sailor, chances are he's British because the British sailors wore their hair long in a queue or braid and kept it neat with tar because the ships they used a lot of pine tar to preserve the wood, and they would just put it in their hair to keep it out of their eyes and to keep down the lice.


CHARLES FINNEMORE: (Singing) And Jack (unintelligible) as nimble as could be, and he said, my lovely Nancy.

SHORTALL: This 1942 recording of "The Tarry Sailor" is sung by Charles Finnemore of Bridgewater, Maine.


FINNEMORE: (Singing) Into her apron fold, take this from a tarry sailor.

GOSBEE: Listening to the original recordings, you can hear how excited and passionate some of these singers were about the songs they were singing for the collectors. And of course, in their minds, these were going to go down through the years, and people were going to share them and remember them. And most of it has been untouched for 75, 80 years; my guess is 90 years now, some of it. So unearthing that stuff and bringing those songs forward in a way brings those singers alive again. We've gotten really fond of some of these singers.

SHORTALL: And Lane says the couple's already working on a second volume of bygone ballads - songs about love, tragedy, murder and drinking on the farm and in the forest.

For NPR News, I'm Keith Shortall in Thomaston, Maine.


CASTLEBAY: (Singing) The judge spoke up just as bold as could be, and he said my lovely Nancy. Did you think I would come home from sea with both my pockets empty?

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