"Leaving Of Liverpool" from 'Son Of Rogues Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys'
The Leaving of Liverpool
A fo'c'sle song first documented as having been heard in 1885 aboard an American ship, collected by William Main Doerflinger in the 1940s and first published in 1951. A second version, also collected by Doerflinger and recently discovered at the U.S. Library of Congress, is a capstan shanty that, like the more familiar version, tells the story of sailors saying farewell to Liverpool, on board the "floating hell" that would take them to California.
It would be hard not to agree with the celebrated maritime historian Danny Vickers on just about any question concerning young men who went to sea, especially in the northeastern parts of North America. Seriously, even Good Will Hunting cited him -- remember that scene in the bar where Will flummoxed the college boys and got the girl? Vickers was central to that historiography lesson. Check the transcript.
In a literature that grew from a call to look "Beyond Jack Tar" to the groundbreaking 2005 study of Salem sailors, Young Men and the Sea: Yankee Seafarers in the Age of Sail, Vickers demonstrated that seamen from that part of the world were almost always men, almost always young, and -- if they weren't among the third of Salem sailors who died at sea -- would probably have spent most of their working lives not on the sea, but on land. Moreover, they probably only went to sea in the first place because they grew up near the shore, often within a few miles of the ocean. Perhaps not the most romantic idea, but when applied to the question, "so what might they have sung about?," it wouldn't be surprising to find that contemporary sources and the song collections that came later suggest that they probably sang about pretty much the same things people sang about on land -- and in this case, about what they were doing. Which explains the "outward-bound" sea shanties and songs.
When leaving port, a sailor was often split asunder: longing for the love (or loves) left behind, but anticipating, with excitement or dread (or both), what awaited at sea. In this, the trad sea song "The Leaving of Liverpool" is no exception.
First reported by deep-water bosun Dick Maitland as a fo'c'sle song he heard aboard the General Knox in 1885, we have the author and collector Bill Doerflinger to thank for introducing us to this "sailor's farewell to Liverpool." His landmark 1951 collection, Shanteymen and Shantyboys: Songs of the Sailor and Lumberman, makes the point that work songs work equally well on land or sea, especially when you live in "a region long famous throughout the world both for its merchant shipping and for its no less outstanding logging operations" -- the Northeastern United States.
The story of the clipper ship Davy Crockett, launched at Mystic, Connecticut in 1853, was a profitable one for its owners, who reportedly realized a cool half-mil in its twenty-three years (no mean sum, at the time), on the toughest beat in the ocean world -- Liverpool, New York, and San Fran by way of Cape Horn. Burgess, the captain who the song claims made life aboard the ship "a floating hell," didn't survive the experience, being lost at sea in 1874 on his final voyage before retirement.
Nor did the ship itself long survive; just five years after Maitland reported hearing the song, the Davy Crockett fell victim, as did so many sailing ships, to the economics of the Age of Steam. Stripped of her sails, she was transformed into a coal barge. Farewell to Prince's Landing Stage, indeed.
But the ship will live on forever in the song it spawned -- and now, in two versions that survive, for the U.S. Library of Congress recently unearthed the version Doerflinger preferred but lost, through a series of misadventures, prior to publication. The newly published capstan shanty version proves once again the capacity of song and singers to adapt to the moment, at land or on sea, at work or at rest.
And those who prefer material culture to song (who are these people?) will be glad to know that the most ornamental part of the ship survives, too. Drop by San Francisco's National Maritime Park and there, in all his coonskin splendor, is ol' Davy himself, the figurehead from, well, if not hell, then perhaps a place from which you could have seen it.
The backwoodsman, then, brings the story full-circle -- another one of those young landsmen who just happened to go to sea.