When I write, I often listen to one genre on heavy rotation. While I’m a pretty eclectic music lover overall, when writing in long stretches, I most commonly turn to country. I grew up listening to country and I find it calming. However, I’m not such a huge fan of newer country music. There are exceptions, and finding an exception led me to this blog post.
A few months ago, I started working on my book heavily and I wanted to find an album that would get me into the writing spirit. I usually listen to older country music- Dolly Parton and Conway Twitty types of things- but I wanted something new. So I googled “best country albums of 2016” and got a nice list of country albums. I immediately nixed a few- but I came across one- Sturgill Simpson’s Sea Stories- that interested me. Obviously the title intrigued me, but the album also contained a cover of Nirvana’s In Bloom which is terribly satisfying. After listening to the album, I basically fell in love with two things- Simpson’s voice (which is somewhere between George Jones and Merle Haggard- this is high praise indeed)- and his subject material. Simpson’s album is an extremely lovely collection of sailor’s songs. Simpson was in the US Navy and his material for this album draws a lot from his time as a sailor. One of the most interesting songs is “Sea Stories”- an intense, fast paced narrative of a stint in the US Navy from enlistment to discharge (and seem reminiscent of John Prine at times):
Basically it's just like papaw says:
"Keep your mouth shut and you'll be fine"
Just another enlisted egg
In the bowl for Uncle Sam's beater
When you get to Dam Neck
Hear a voice in your head
Saying, "my life's no longer mine"
Have you running with some SAG SOG
Sailing out on them high seas
Feels just like being born
That first port call in Thailand
Feels like a pollywog turning nineteen
They've got king cobras fighting in boxing rings
And all the angels play Connect Four
Seems like a sailor's paradise
But turns out to be a bad dream
Now you hit the ground running in Tokyo
From Kawasaki to Ebisu
Yokosuka, Yokohama, and Shinjuku
Shibuya, Ropongi, and Harajuku
Aw, from Pusan and Ko Chang, Pattaya to Phuket
From Singapore to Kuala Lumpur
Seen damn near the whole damn world
From the inside of a bar
I've got sea stories
They're all true
Might seem a little bit far-fetched
But why would I lie to you
Memories make forever stains
Still got salt running through my veins
I've got sea stories
And my shellback, too
Sometimes Sirens send a ship off course
Horizon gets so hazy
Maybe get high, play a little GoldenEye
On that old 64
And if you get sick and can't manage the kick
And get yourself kicked out the navy
You'll spend the next year trying to score
From a futon life raft on the floor
And the next fifteen trying to figure out
What the hell you did that for
But flying high beats dying for lies
In a politician's war
In this video, Simpson calls it a "pirate song".
Listening to A Sailor’s Guide to the Earth reminded me of reading maritime novels- Simpson’s snapshot of the maritime world uses the lens of labor- that of the lessons learned as a sailor laboring on the sea.
Critics have struggled to place his album into a genre—it leans in some places to blues, Southern Rock, traditional country—but it isn’t difficult to see that it is, in many ways, most clearly in the maritime tradition.
According to Neuenfeldt, maritime music traditions are songs of “longing and belonging.” They typically take the form of shanties/chanties- specific song structures of call and reply or singing in the round. There are several groupings or “types” that one might be tempted to describe. When I first started reading about maritime music I was tempted to make some divisions. Songs like those of Pacific Islanders that tell the history of cultures and are integral to cultural identity seemed somehow different than ‘Surf City’ and midcentury American rock-and-roll. But of course, the more I thought about the divisions, the more colonially minded and close minded they appeared to me. It is both simplistic and telling to say that maritime traditions of singing are ways of exploring “longing and belonging”: all songs about the sea are built around themes of culture building through leisure, labor, and longing (either for the sea or to return home from it).
There’s a rich history of studying and recording these musical traditions (and basically every sea-going culture from black boatmen in Maritime Canada to Pacific Islanders and pirates [and basically all people who work on waterways- including rivers and at docks in general]). I'm going to use just one of example of many here. In 1966, Roger Abrahams, an American folklorist visited Barrouallie, St. Vincent. The village is a traditional whaling and fishing outpost in the Caribbean. In addition to hosting a fishing community, it is also known for producing sailors that served on fishing and shipping ventures throughout the world. The maritime tradition in Barrouallie, one of labor on the sea, dependence on successful labors, the seaside labor to convert a whale into money, and also of leaving home for extremely long stretches with no ken of how quickly you would come back (if ever) produced a specific type of musical traditional.
Several types of songs emerged from this particular maritime culture:
1. The love song about loneliness and distance
2. Songs meant to keep time for rowing or to encourage work
3. Narratives that highlighted tensions between the laborer and the owner or government
The last is an interesting case.
When rigging broke or the boat was in poor condition, the sailors might sing this shanty:
if de owner is lame, that’s the one we must blame
Oh Blow de Man Down
Blow de man right down to de ground
Another song in this tradition involved mocking those that didn’t work on the water but reaped the benefits:
The song De Man in De Waistcoat talks about the government official at the port that collected taxes for bringing in catches. He sittin’ on his stool just like a little boy in Sunday School, de man in de waistcoat love fisherman’s money.
The combination of songs about loneliness and labor “of longing and belonging”, match Simpson’s album perfectly. The album is meant, according to the musician, to mirror a letter Simpson’s grandfather wrote in the South Pacific during WWII in case he didn’t make it back from the war. Sailor’s is a letter to Simpson’s first child in this vein. There is a song to his wife (Oh Sarah) that mimics traditional narratives about fears of not returning from a voyage- of never finding a way home from the water (both metaphorical and literal; several songs (Keep Between the Lines and Brace for Impact) give advice to his son for growing up without him- should the possibility arise. And several (Call to arms and Sea Stories) have an edge of anger at Simpson’s employer (the US Navy) in the tradition of employer/employee relationships on the sea.
The song I struggled to place into the maritime tradition the most was the cover of Nirvana’s In Bloom. How, I wondered, does this translate into maritime music? But anthropologists and musicologists have studied the transfer of traditional, terrestrial songs into maritime cultures as well. And what they’ve found is that many maritime shanties/chanties are derived from a basic structure used in both marine and field labor. The Shanties of the Caribbean whale trade borrow and mimic the Chanties and songs of the field slaves and workers on Caribbean plantations. Music was taken from each context and changed by workers to suit the requirements of each group. I was reminded, when listening to In Bloom, of a friend who told me offhandedly one time that while he was in the marines, everyone’s favorite song was Baby Hit Me One More Time and many marines sang it constantly. At the time, it struck me as odd. But when thinking about longing and belonging, about floating on a boat in the middle of the ocean, about building identity, I place In Bloom into these traditions- of borrowing and building relationships through songs that are shared but not necessarily about the water.
Maritime songs aren’t necessarily about the water but about the identity one builds on the water to survive and thrive. And while Simpson is no longer a sailor in the US Navy, he has created a maritime album that sits squarely in the tradition. Give it a listen.