Smithsonian Folkways has a long and distinguished reputation as champions of the maritime tradition, and the long overdue reissue of the 32 tracks on their Classic Maritime Music compilation is a wonder to behold. None of the records that these songs originally appeared on is in print, and the compilers have done a commendable job at choosing representative tracks from the large array of artists whose work has graced many a turntable over the course of the last 60 years. Opening the set are two cuts from New York's South Street Seaport Museum troubadours, the X-Seamen's Institute, a collective whose repertoire was as impressive in size as in execution, and whose several records for Folkways have been long sought after by collectors. Their version of "Shenandoah" is among the most beautiful ever recorded, and the fact that they appear four more times on the collection is a testament to their well-earned place alongside seafaring heavyweights like Lou Killen and Cyril Tawney. Also notable is the inclusion of three tracks from the Foc'sle Singers, a seafaring supergroup of sorts that included Paul Clayton and Dave Van Ronk, who released one of the genre's finest recordings, Foc'sle Songs and Shanties, in 1959. By focusing on the medium's excellent musicianship and clever vocal arrangements, contributions from the Bahamas-based Dicey Doh Singers ("Sloop John B.") and instrumentals from Ellen Cohen ("Ten-Penny Bit") and Tom Sullivan ("Homeward Bound/The Old Slipper Shoe") help to dispel the notion that all sea shanties were merely work songs with a call and response. Excellent tracks by everyone from "salty dogs" like Ewan MacColl to Leadbelly, whose version of the Atlantic sailing shanty "Haul Away Joe" sees the bluesman adapting it to a Mississippi riverboat song, are wonderful windows into a world that's sadly diminishing. As an introduction to the genre, Classic Maritime Music is indispensable, but as a beacon of hope for those who covet the recordings still lost at sea, it's priceless.
Classic Maritime Music from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings Review
by James Christopher Monger