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The Greenland Whale Fisheries [Roud 347] – Ben Nicholls & Kris Drever

A new recording of 'The Greenland Whale Fisheries' [Roud 347] finds maestros Ben Nicholls and Kris Drever in fine voice and collaboration.

It has been just over a year since Ben Nicholls last set sail, but word arrives that he has once again weighed anchor. Taken from his forthcoming album, Duets, the lead single is performed with Kris Drever, and is a take on the seabound classic, ‘The Greenland Whale Fishery’ [Roud 347], a song that the latter has been singing on tour for some time (we caught him tackling it on stage in Winchester last year, and it was the highpoint of a splendid set).

The new video catches the pair playing the song in a studio, resplendent in black and white. It’s a great performance, with Nicholls doubling Drever on the central riff, pushing it forward with real energy. As Nicholls explained to Folk Radio UK, “I’ve played with Kris a few times over the years, and he’s always brilliant. We were both playing at different concerts in Cardiff a while ago and ran into each other afterwards at a bar. I mentioned the idea I had for an album of bass duets, and he said he’d love to come and record something for the record. He suggested trying a version of ‘Greenland Whale Fishery’. I’ve been immersed in maritime music for a few years, so it was great to get together with Kris and play this traditional old song of the Arctic whaling trade.”

While the single is already available on all streaming platforms, the album is due “early next year”. It can be pre-ordered now from Hudson Records.

‘The Greenland Whale Fishery’ – a brief history

The song details a journey into the Greenland whale fishery (the area near Greenland where whaling was, at that time, bountiful). While it depicts a fairly run-of-the-mill tragedy, the version made popular in the mid-20th century by The Watersons has that essential political twist common to many powerful folk songs, provoking indignation as the callous, money-driven captain watches his crew lose their lives while bitterly mourning the loss of his prey.

In terms of the song’s history, A L Lloyd made claims that it had appeared on a broadside in 1725. Steve Roud, however, dates it to about 1820, noting in The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs that, “Of several songs about whaling, [‘The Greenland Whale Fishery’] was easily the most widely known, and the one which lasted in traditional singers’ repertoires.” It appears to have been sung on the whaling ships themselves, as Roud continues: “We have evidence that it appealed to at least two real whalers, as copies were found in the journals of the ships Bengal from Salem, in 1833, and Euphrasia from New Bedford, in 1849.”

The ever-reliable Mainly Norfolk website lists any number of recordings of ‘The Greenland Whale Fishery’, starting with A L Lloyd’s version for an album called The Singing Sailor, which he made with Ewan MacColl and Harry H Corbett. MacColl later sang three verses for the 1962 film, Whaler Out of New Bedford. The Watersons’ recording appeared on at least six albums, while other performers of note include Van Dyke Parks (Rogue’s Gallery, 2006), Jon Boden (part of his Folk Song a Day series) and The Pogues, who recorded a version for their 1984 album, Red Roses for Me