Remembering The Old Songs:


by Bob Waltz

(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, October 2006)

It never ceases to amaze me. Some politician comes along and says we need more scientists and mathematicians and engineers -- and then votes for a budget that makes mathematical and even thermodynamic nonsense, all the while gutting the budget for school science programs and demanding that they not teach the most basic aspects of the various disciplines!

With leaders like that, it's no wonder India is eating our lunch.

But the real problem is that science isn't considered exciting. People think that scientists just sit around scribbling equations in the lab. It's not so. Oh, I mostly scribbled equations, but then, I'm utterly inept and the greater the distance between me and lab equipment, the better. But one of my friends in college spent time in Britain and India as an undergraduate, earned her doctorate, then went to work in Los Alamos and then for the National Institutes of Health. Last I heard from her, she was working on AIDS. That was fifteen years ago or so. Sometimes I worry about what she may have discovered the hard way...

But that's nothing to eighteenth and nineteenth century science. The ultimate example is probably Lavoisier, the founder of chemistry, who was guillotined. But even Charles Darwin sacrificed years of his life far from home on the Beagle.

And then there are the polar explorers. We think of them just as people who wanted to make names for themselves, and certainly people like Robert Peary were -- Peary would, and did, lie, cheat and steal his way to a point that he knew perfectly well wasn't the North Pole. But the explorers of the nineteenth century were sent out with instructions which stressed science above all else -- John Frankin in 1819 was told he should "register the temperature of the air...together with the state of the wind and weather and any other meteorological phenomena. That I should...[observe] the dip and variation of the magnetic needle, and the intensity of the magnetic force; and should take particular notice whether any, and what kind or degree of, influence the Aurora Borealis might exert on the magnetic needle..."

Those arctic explorers would pay a high price. Half of Franklin's men on that expedition would not return home. Two-thirds of those on the 1879 Jeannette expedition were lost. Adolphus Greely's 1881 journey resulted in 75% casualties.

And then there was Charles Francis Hall's 1871 Polaris expedition. Hall himself was poisoned early on (though we don't know if it was accidental or purposeful). The leaderless expedition went to pieces -- one large party floated south on an iceberg, "more like ghosts than men" indeed. Similarly John Ross's 1829-1833 Northwest Passage expedition, which abandoned its engine after one year, its ship after two, and was seeing men die of scurvy by the third; they eventually went into Baffin Bay in lifeboats hoping for rescue before they starved.

I'm amazed there isn't a movie about Ross, even more so that there isn't one about Hall. This song isn't about him -- no arctic expedition, and no whaler either, ever carried five hundred men; fifty is more like it -- but it makes me think about him, and all those other voyages. And besides, winter is coming, and it's about going to the ice.
Anyway, if anyone tells you science isn't exciting, just wait. President Bush wants an expedition to Mars. The people who go on that trip -- who are probably in grade school today -- will be like the arctic explorers, more isolated than anyone who has lived in the twentieth century. But they'll need to know science if they want to go on that trip....

This isn't an old-time song; best guess is that it started as a broadside in Ireland, ending up in Newfoundland and Canada, where (I suspect) it was sung mostly by the Baffin Bay whalers. This version was collected by Edith Fowke from O. J. Abbott, who gave her dozens of excellent songs. I picked it up from one of my favorite records, Margaret Christl and Ian Robb's The Barley Grain for Me, which is sort of Canadian Old-Time. I've never heard it sung with an accompaniment, so I haven't marked chords in the music.


Complete Lyrics:
Oh, you may bless your happy lots, all ye who dwell on shore,
For it's little you know of the hardships that we poor seamen bore.
Yes, it's little you know of the hardships that we were forced to stand
For fourteen days and fifteen night on the Banks of Newfoundland.

Our ship, she sailed through frost and snow from the day we left Quebec,
And if we had not walked about we'd have frozen to the deck.
But we being true-born sailor men as ever ship had manned
Our Captain, he doubled our grog each day on the Banks of Newfoundland.

Well, there never was a ship, me boys, that sailed the western waves,
But the billowy seas came a-rolling in and bent them into staves.
Our ship being built of unseasoned wood, it could but little stand,
The hurricane, it met us there on the Banks of Newfoundland.

Well, we fasted for thirteen days and nights, our provisions giving out,
On the morning of the fourteenth day, we cast our lines about.
Well, the lot, it fell on the Captain's son, and thinking relief at hand,
We spared him for another night on the Banks of Newfoundland.

On the morning of the fifteenth day, no vessel did appear.
We gave to him another hour to offer up a prayer.
Well, Providence to us proved kind; kept blood from every hand,
For an English vessel hove in sight on the Banks of Newfoundland.

We hoisted aloft our signal; they bore down on us straightaway.
When they saw our pitiful condition, they began to weep and pray.
Five hundred souls we had on board when first we left the land
There's now alive but seventy-five on the Banks of Newfoundland.

They took us off that ship, me boys; we was more like ghosts than men.
They fed us and they clothed us and brought us back again.
They fed us and they clothed us,  and brought us straight to land.
While the billowy waves roll o'er the graves on the Banks of Newfoundland.

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