This column often includes a lot of history, but it's rare that it ties in directly with a historical event. This month's song does. This year marks the hundredth anniversary of a feat that baffled mariners for nearly four hundred years: The transit of the Northwest Passage.
So obscure has this particular feat become that a lot Americans probably don't even know what it means. You may recall that Columbus bumped into America as he was trying to get to the Indies (which, ironically, he set out to do because he was too dumb to realize that he was using an incorrect measurement of earth's circumference). America, to be sure, proved a useful discovery — but Europeans still wanted to get to the Indies without having to go around Africa.
This proved tricky. Before the building of the Panama Canal, the only route available was the trip around Cape Horn, which was long and dangerous. So various people, especially British, tried to find a route around the Americas north of Canada. This was the Northwest Passage.
The problem is, it's so far north that it's not really a passage; it has been, especially pre-global warming, an ice floe with a few melted spots. People sought the passage as early as the late sixteenth century, but ice always blocked them.
The Napoleonic Wars brought a change. The British built up a big navy — and then came 1815, and there wasn't any enemy left, and suddenly there were a bunch of officers on the beach and desperately looking for something to do. So someone decided it was time to go back to looking for the Northwest Passage. Several expeditions went out between 1815 and 1825; all were stopped by the ice, usually suffering losses from scurvy and other problems. (The British by this time were using lime juice against scurvy, but the ration was too small to prevent scurvy by itself. Most crews could get at least some vegetables as they voyaged. Not in the arctic!) Still, significant parts of the Canadian arctic were mapped, and one explorer, W. Edward Parry, in 1819-1820 made it about two-thirds of the way through, passing Lancaster Sound, the Barrow Straight, and Melville Sound before ice halted him.
Enter John Franklin (1786-1847). Franklin had been a junior officer at Trafalgar, had commanded a ship in an expedition toward the North Pole in 1819, and had led two overland expeditions into northern Canada in the years after that -- one of which had led to near-disaster, with charges of murder and cannibalism. He had then been sent as a colonial governor to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania).
The job didn't suit him. Franklin was a charming and kindhearted man; he hated flogging his sailors, for instance. Unfortunately, the local officials in Van Diemen's Land were brutal, and felt Franklin was soft. Still less did they like his (second) wife, Jane Griffin Franklin -- an educated, intelligent, beautiful, and spirited woman who didn't want to be just some ornament. Franklin came back from Australia without official commendation, and in need of a career revival.
The Arctic beckoned. By the 1840s, the British government had lost interest in the Passage; it was clear it wasn't commercially viable. But Franklin and others talked the navy into one more expedition. The first choice for leader, James Clark Ross (who was just back from exploring the antarctic; the Ross Sea and Ice Shelf are named for him) turned down the command, so Franklin got the job. In 1845, he led H.M.S. Erebus and Terror into Lancaster Sound.
Neither he nor any of his 129 men was ever seen again by Europeans. His fate had to be learned from the handful of relics they left behind.
The expedition was very well equipped, with food for four years, a large library, and steam ships. Erebus and Terror were the best ships for the job (they had been with Ross in the Antarctic; there are mountains there named for them). But there were errors in their maps, which caused them to waste a year circling Cornwallis Island. Then they were trapped in ice for more than a year and a half. Franklin died near the end of that time. His second in command, F. R. M. Crozier, tried to make it home by land. But his men were by then too feeble, perhaps with lead poisoning (a currently popular theory, though the evidence isn't quite as strong as some claim) and certainly with scurvy, to make it. We don't know their exact fates, but we know that they split into various parties, all of which came to grief.
This song arose because Lady Jane Franklin (1791-1875) wouldn't take "fate unknown" for an answer. After Franklin and crew had been missing for a couple of years, she started harassing the admiralty to find him. She also chartered expeditions on her own, spending thousands of pounds to support them.
It would be years before she learned his fate. Franklin's expedition
set out in 1845; the log entry that told of his death and the decision
to abandon ship was not found until nine years later -- by one of Lady
Franklin's crews, not the navy's. My guess is that this song originated
in 1851; the earliest versions have many detailed references (mostly
gone from this text) that point to the period 1850-1852.
The search for Franklin did have one other result: Crews went into the arctic from both east and west (earlier crews had all started from the east), and though no ships made it through, they did succeed in mapping two channels that would allow crossing the Northwest Passage — if only the ice weren't there.
In 1903-1906, Roald Amundson, later to be famous for reaching the South Pole, accomplished his first great feat of exploration when he managed to sail the Northwest Passage in the Gjøa. It would not be done again until the 1940s. And it wouldn't have been possible even then had it not been for the exploring that had been done in the quest to find Franklin. Lady Franklin never did see her husband again. But she would become the first woman to earn the Patron Medal of the Royal Geographic Society.
It will be obvious that this story fascinates me. In fact, I wrote longer notes about this song for the Ballad Index than any other item in the entire seven thousand song collection. They are significantly longer than this article, which in turn is the longest I've written for the "Old Songs" series.
The main reason for my fascination is this song, with its beautiful melody and tragic lyrics. This is another song that I play in DADGAD tuning — indeed, learning it in DADGAD was what started me researching the piece; it lays out brilliantly in that tuning. Lately I've transcribed a lot of pieces that I have considered among my best, performance-wise. Well, right now, this is my #1; I don't have anything better.
You may have heard this tune under another name; Bob Dylan used it (and even some of the words) for Bob Dylan's Dream. I had a horrible time transcribing it; the timing I've shown is clearly a little off (many of the versions are in triple time), but it sounds right coming out of the computer, so I'm going to live with it.
I'm not sure where I learned this, at least as I sing it now. I'm pretty sure I first heard it on a recording by Dan and Roxanne Keding, but my version is so unlike theirs in feel that I think there has to be another source involved. What, I don't know; the lyrics are the way they sang it. The song is hardly known in American tradition, except among sailors, though it's common in Canada and also found throughout the British Isles. I think it's worth bringing here. And, even though I play it on 12-string guitar (everything I do in DADGAD, I do on 12-string guitar), it actually works with bluegrass banjo.
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I was homeward bound one night on the deep,
Swinging in my hammock, I fell asleep.
I dreamed a dream, yes I thought it true,
Concerning Franklin and his gallant crew.
With a hundred seamen he sailed away
To the frozen ocean in the month of May,
To seek a passage around the pole,
Where we poor sailors do oftentimes go.
Through cruel hardships they mainly strove;
On mountains of ice their ship was drove.
Only the Eskimo in his skin canoe
Was the only one who ever came through.
In Baffin's Bay where the whale fish blow,
The fate of Franklin no man may know.
The fate of Franklin no tongue can tell,
Where Lord Franklin and his gallant men do dwell.
And now my burden it gives me pain;
For my long-lost Franklin I'd cross the main.
Ten thousand pounds would I freely give
To say on earth that my Franklin do live.