Updated: Jan 30, 2021
It seems everyone is getting into Sea Shanties these days. That Nathan Evans tune is an earworm and may make it to number 1 in the charts. But he is not the first recording artist to lay down a shanty track. I know of a couple of Sunderland songsters who beat him to it by almost 100 years.
I’m trying hard not to be smug here, but I was ahead of the shanty fad when 12 years ago I reunited a group of Wearsiders with a long-lost ancestor – a salty sea dog called Captain Mark Page.
He’d long since passed but his voice had been frozen in time, etched on a wax cylinder. I made it my mission to have him sing to them from beyond the grave. I had discovered that American academic James Madison Carpenter had visited the North East in the 1920’s in a desperate attempt to document sea shanties before they were lost forever.
The age of sail was giving way to steam. The rhythms of the shanty that urged a ship’s crew to haul on ropes in perfect unison were no longer needed. Many of these songs were never written down, neither lyrics nor notes. A part of maritime culture, they were handed down sailor to sailor and they, of course, were a dying breed.
When I discovered Carpenter had also scribbled down a few scant details about each of the singers I wondered...could I trace their descendants who would never have known that their long forgotten ancestor had been captured for posterity?
"Who do you think you are?".....in reverse.
I spent three months tracking down the living relatives of Edward Robinson (1834-1932).
I felt I got to know Edward quite well as I rummaged through archives and the Sunderland city library. He married Margaret Wood in 1862 and they had three children. That was a start.
But doing “Who do you think you are?” in reverse is complicated and just as I thought I was getting close, I discovered his family line ended with 2 sisters who were childless and who’d only passed away a few years before. I would have to start all over.
Carpenter had hit the jackpot by coming to Sunderland.
Tucked away in an old part of the city is Trafalgar Square. It’s a neat terrace of almshouses that surround a quadrangle on three sides.
Even today you need a maritime link to be able to live there.
Scroll through the images above to see: Trafalgar Square, me with the wax cylinders in the Library of Congress, 4 generations of Capt Mark Page's family and Carpenter with his Morris Minor.
Imagine the elderly sailors wondering who on earth this American-accented visitor was. Remember few people owned a motorcar back then. Here he was having driven up in his Morris Minor and asking them to sing into some new-fangled contraption called an Ediphone.
They would have been astonished when he was able to play the recording straight back at them. This is before answerphones and cassette recorders. How unnerving must it have been to hear your own voice detached from your body for the first time?
Captain Mark Page, had agreed to record a couple of sea shanties for Carpenter and with the few scrawled notes that the American had written about the encounter I was able to create another family tree and this time find a dozen of Page’s living relatives.
All I would tell them was that I had some news about an ancestor, that it didn’t involve an inheritance, but, if only they would gather at the Sunderland Glass Centre at a particular time and date, I would reveal all.
Bizarrely they seemed to trust me and did show up.
And to think it might never have happened!
Carpenter did his academic research, but possibly imagining no one else would share his passion for these songs, the wax cylinders were consigned to an old trunk and lay undisturbed for decades.
How could he possibly have known that in the 2020’s people would be interested in hearing shanties again?
Fortunately the US Folklife Center, which is part of the Library of Congress in Washington DC got wind of the collection and found them a home. I'd spotted a small reference to that and in turh that set me off on my quest.
Now amongst a somewhat anonymous collection at least a couple of Carpenter's singers now have faces and a history. It has brought Robinson and Page back to life.
I’m really proud of the work I put in, but it also brought great personal reward. I saw faces of the living relatives beam and their eyes fill up as they heard that voice from beyond the grave. As one of them told me as she wiped back the tears:
"It's like having the hand history touch you on the shoulder."
You can hear all them for yourself as the entire collection has now been digitised. It’s not Dolby stereo surround-sound, but the scratchy wax cylinders are as close to the real shanty as you’re ever likely to get.
Listen here for my chat with BBC Radio Sunderland about this story and we play even some of the old wax cylinder recordings.
https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p093tn8g Scroll to 1.39 for the start.
Only available until Feb 29th