Sea Songs from Two Oceans: A Comparative Analysis of Maritime Songs from the Coasts of Yorkshire and British Columbia
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Yorkshire folksong collector Frank Kidson did most of his fieldwork during the last two decades of the Victorian era. The fruits of his labours during the 1880s found expression in his pioneering collection Traditional Tunes (1891) but the second volume that would have showcased his collecting in the 1890s was never published in the form he intended and the best source for his later fieldwork remains the several manuscripts held in the Mitchell Library, Glasgow. Kidson obtained maritime songs from source singers in both south Yorkshire (in and near the seaport of Hull) and the north Yorkshire coast from Scarborough to Whitby. The leading Western Canadian collector Phil Thomas did most of his fieldwork three-quarters of a century later, but his impressive collection of vernacular songs from British Columbia also includes a substantial number of maritime songs obtained from source singers who made their livings on the coastal waters of the Pacific from Vancouver to Alaska. Part of Thomas’ collection was published in his Songs of the Pacific Northwest but much remains in manuscript or on tape. The goal of this paper is to compare the different kinds of sea songs found in these two relatively unknown and under-utilized collections. To what extent do we find parallels between the songs of fishermen, tug-boat men, and ocean-going sailors braving the gales of the North Sea and Atlantic and those of their counterparts working in the Strait of Georgia and on the Pacific Ocean? Do we discover very similar shanties, songs of fishing, and ballads about shipwrecks, or are the differences in time and geography so great that each region’s vernacular songs are quite different and unique? My analysis aims to detect and delineate similarities between these two song traditions as well as to indicate the characteristic regional features of each. In the process I hope to show why the Kidson and Thomas collections are both worthy of greater attention by folklorists, ethnomusicologists, and ballad scholars.