Folk musician plays a shruti in what appears to be a wooden workshed during the Sea Song Sessions.
Emily Portman. Photo credit: Adam Clitheroe

Sea Song Sessions, a Collaborative Maritime Collection from Boden, Lakeman, Nicholls, Portman & Rutter – a review

The recent resurgence has made it clear that sea shanties remain an important part of the UK singing tradition. Topic Records reminds us what songs about the sea can really be, as Alex Hurr explores.

Release Date
30 September 2022
Sea Song Sessions, Topic Records
Jon Boden, Seth Lakeman, Ben Nicholls, Emily Portman and Jack Rutter join forces to revisit some of their favourite sea songs. A great selection performed with infectious energy and superb musicianship, offering hope to anyone whose resolve has been weakened by the relentless thud of 'The Wellerman'.

Releasing a compilation of sea shanties has taken on a different meaning since the bizarre (yet exciting) internet phenomenon that took place at the end of 2020. It may have crossed your mind, as it did mine, that Topic Records might be ‘cashing in’ on this trend (as out of character as that may be), but we would both be quite mistaken. These songs are not designed to pander to any algorithm – what you’ll hear here is a genuine collection of songs performed by lovers of shanties, who were originally asked to prepare some sea-related songs for Folkestone Festival before the good idea of creating an album came about. Jon Boden, Seth Lakeman, Ben Nicholls, Emily Portman and Jack Rutter are all household names and, with their extensive repertoires, seem like a perfect selection for the task.

The album opens with one of my personal favourite sea-themed tunes; ‘The Rambling Sailor’ (also known as ‘Young Johnson’, Roud 518), was brought to a wider audience by Tim Hart in 1968 but collected by Vaughan Williams way back in 1907. This rendition has great rhythm and veers towards an American traditional twang reminiscent of bluegrass. The sound of the ensemble here is particularly enjoyable, building a strong image of the group from the offset.

The next traditional song on the album is ‘Rock’n’Row Me Over’ (‘One More Day’, Roud 704) on which Emily Portman takes the lead and invites us on a beautifully wistful journey, full of longing and trepidation that one can imagine feeling on those long sea voyages far, far away from home. The ensemble vocals at the end invoke images of a band of wayfaring marauders on their way to a distant land, lamenting for that which has been left behind – a common theme in these songs of the sea. Portman follows on with another traditional song, ‘Short Jacket and While Trousers’ (‘The Rakish Female Sailor’, Roud 231), a song that has particular notoriety because of its subject matter, touching as it does on themes of cross-dressing, repressed homosexuality and, of course, unrequited love. Though there are many variations, they all describe a woman who dresses as a man in order to board a ship and join her lover in some far-off land. The twist, as in many of these renditions, sees the captain develop feelings of a lustful nature, wishing that woman-dressed-as-man were indeed a maid, so that they could be together. A great ballad, expertly reproduced by Emily Portman and the band.

Jon Boden shines with his performance of ‘Fire Marengo’, a ‘cotton-screwing’ song (well worth a deeper dig if you’re into these sorts of things). Here, the whole ensemble brings energy to the song, creating an exciting and powerful atmosphere, and making the listener want to jump up and shout, “fire!” It gave me fantasies about boarding a ship and leaving it all behind… but alternatively would be a great song to introduce at your next singaround to really get the blood pumping.

‘Young Susan on Board of a Man-of-War’ [Roud 1533] is led by Jack Rutter, who gives one of my favourite renditions. It’s another ballad with a strong female character at its helm. Susan dresses as a man to board a ship with her bloke, but ends up getting shot, though we must assume not fatally, as they swiftly return to England where they get married and (one presumes) live happily ever after with nothing but a fine story and a hefty scar.

Those with their fingers on the folk releases pulse might spot that this compilation is mostly made up of songs already released elsewhere by these artists, but re-recorded with this exciting line-up. Although the songs aren’t strictly new in this sense (and it is folk, after all), I would say that the manner in which they are performed and compiled here for Topic Records makes the disc far greater than the sum of its parts. This is folk with a modern edge, and I might even go so far as to say it nods in the direction of American Country in its timbres and sound quality. The tunes are energetic and, though they feature predominantly acoustic instrumentation, make up a powerful but varied selection of tracks.

I get the impression that the intention of this album was to prove that there is more to the sea shanty genre than ‘The Wellerman Come (to randomly pick one song from the recent resurgence). The depth of storytelling and history of sea shanties is broad and fascinating, and this album does a great job of giving us a flavour of this. Perhaps only an institution as loved as Topic Records could compile such a compelling collection of songs featuring some of the most dynamic performers in the contemporary folk scene today, on which each musician is given the opportunity to bring their expertise and shine. This will be an album I come back to time and time again because of its great selection, expert arrangements and enthusiastic delivery.

Sea Song Sessions is released on Topic Records on September 30th. It can be ordered by following this link.