Saturday, 7 March 2009


This week’s ‘I haven’t heard that for a long time’ was Nic Jones singing Canadee-i-o. (Yeah, I think Dylan did it too. You’ll be wanting the Nic Jones version, k?).

So lovely and clean a guitar tune, and the beginning of it makes me think of Joan’s research and the masses of interesting things she knows about seafaring women. Joan knows everything there is to know about that curious breed of girl who found herself wedded to a whaling ship captain heading off into the great nowhere of the south seas, surviving months in close quarters among stinking men and salt and flesh and blood. Joan also knows about those women who commandeered convict ships in Australian waters and (maybe) made it to New Zealand shores, or in any case made themselves able to fare quite admirably, thank you very much, on the high seas (until caught and hanged, obviously). And Joan knows about these women who disguised themselves as boys to get ship’s passage.

Theirs isn’t generally a happy story, to hear Joan tell it; it seems mostly one of captains who discovered the women’s treachery and let them continue working for the voyage, only to kick them off at port with threats in their ears and no pay for months of hard labour.

So in this song, a ‘fair and handsome girl’ wants to follow her young sailor-boy overseas, we assume to Newfoundland, and bargains her way onto a ship to get herself there. The crew discovers her in short order, binds her hands and feet, and makes ready to throw her overboard.

Enter the captain in a great rage, who says the girl can keep her collar of sailor-blue and be taken safely to that seaport town. Then there’s a handy guitar-solo gap of ‘half a year’ – at the end of which she ends up married to the captain who saved her, dressed in the regulation ‘silks and satins’ of such songs, one of the ‘finest ladies’ of Canadee-i-o.

Well, the song has the requisite plenary verse of ‘what have we learned today, kids?’ in which what we’ve learned is the ‘honour’ she’s gained by dressing as a sailor.

And much as I like this song, this bit always annoys the frack out of me. First of all, if we’re counting the ‘finest (immigrant) ladies’ of Canada of the time, we’d be looking to Susannah Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill, and if you’ve ever come across them you will know there’s a lot more black mud, hacking out tree stumps, starving and delivering freezing slippery babies than tripping about in silks and satins going on. It pisses me right off that this girl goes through the ship’s passage – enduring the unmentioned six months of, presumably, extreme hardship at the hands of crewmen who only didn’t kill her because of orders – only to spring into a pair of silk stockings and get all her ladyshippish. She’s all about the ‘honour’ the sailor’s uniform brought her, as long as she could ditch it at the first waft of a lavender handkerchief.

Also, what of the sailor-boy she was following in the first place? All right, I can somewhat see having your head turned by the captain, in a you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-prevent-you-from-being-murdered kind of way. But according to the song, she ‘loved him well’, that sailor-boy. Seems he didn’t live up to the potential standards of living of a captain’s wife, though.

Anyone – find me something in between the Joan and the Jones version? Any girl who didn’t get her arse kicked for trying, nor trade it for glamour? They existed in history. Why not to a mandolin accompaniment?

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