Welsh Shanties

Hands across the sea – Mick Tems on Welsh shanty singing

Stan Hugill, the last shantyman, was born in Hoylake, Cheshire, on November 19, 1906 and died in Aberystwyth, aged 86, on May 13, 1992. He was also bosun and instructor at the Outward Bound school in Aberdyfi, a prisoner of war, fluent in Japanese, Spanish and several eastern languages, a talented painter of nautical scenes, a raconteur, a BBC and Western Mail correspondent. He served as shantyman in the Garthpool, the last British commercial tall ship, on her last voyage which ended when she was wrecked in 1929 off the Cape Verde Islands. Stan devoted himself to shanties, which were vital as work songs, and wrote the shantyman’s bible, Shanties From The Seven Seas. I learned an unusual macaronic shanty from Stan, Hob y Deri Dando, which he got from an old Aberdyfi seaman:

I’ll sing the bass if you’ll sing the solo,
Hob y deri dando!
All about the clipper ship, the Marco Polo,
Can y gan y eto!…

But it was the little-known friendship between Stan and Professor J. Glyn Davies of Liverpool University, author of Fflat Huw Puw, Cerddi Portinllaen and and several other books of composed Welsh shanties, that really held the key which linked this Aberdyfi shanty with the Marco Polo, a famous, ageing clipper which had seen better days.

Stan corresponded with Davies, who worked for the Cambrian Line and who died in 1953. Davies describes Anglesey and Caernarfonshire, Pembroke and Ceredigion as the great sea-faring counties, and says the proportion of Welshmen afloat was far greater that the English. He says: “The whole of Lleyn (sic) was permeated with sea life. Even the haycarts were redolent of it; with eyesplice, bowline, clove hitch and timber hitch, and every rope-end properly finished off in sea fashion.”

Welsh ship owners had to find shareholders in Wales, and it was but good financial policy to appoint a Welsh master and Welsh officers. It helped to establish confidence. Unlike Stan’s Liverpool-style practice of crews who had just been thrown together and were unpractised at singing, Welsh skippers carefully recruited their seamen – lads who had grown up together, had sung in the choir and for whom the sense of three-part harmony was natural. Davies wryly observed: “I have heard English crews sing shanties, but I was always too close to do them justice. About a couple of miles distance might have mellowed the sound; twenty miles would have been still better.”

Davies says Welsh was the mother tongue, that is except for orders and shanties. Sadly, there were no Welsh-language shanties – with a minimum workforce of perhaps up to five, work songs became superfluous.

The Cambrian Line used to buy up old ships, and so became owner of the Marco Polo, Donald McKay and Red Jacket. The clippers were in Welsh hands once more.

Davies wanted to compose books of Welsh-language shanties for children to give them something they could get their teeth into. Several shanties were based on men singing on the Welsh ships. Critics dismiss the work songs as ersatz kids’ stuff – but Davies used his considerable musical knowledge and a sharp ear to compare the subtle Welsh-influenced variations. Even today, we can pinpoint shanty singing, Welsh style. Fflat Huw Puw and the Davies books are a fascinating insight into nautical Welsh harmony.

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