Tuesday, December 10, 2013

We Hope in a Short Time to See You Again

"Spanish Ladies" is one of the oldest known sea songs in the English language, with the first reference to it appearing in 1624 (and that on dry land, suggesting the song itself was likely older). We don't know what it sounded like until the 18th century. But at that time, it had a minor-key version of the melody that would become familiar from later versions, probably sounding something like in this video.

If that melody sounds oddly familiar, don't be too surprised - like "The Unfortunate Rake," versions of "Spanish Ladies" have been collected all across the globe, and indeed the melodies are closely related. (I would say they are precisely the same, but there are many small variations from one version of the tune to another; even within either family of lyrics, the precise tune is not constant.)

"Spanish Ladies" as known to modern folklorists comes from an era of a great deal of trade between England (its place of origin) and North America, so it should come as no surprise that a slightly relocalized version from New England is documented also, in which the chorus instead begins "We'll rant and we'll roar like true Yankee whalermen" and the various places mentioned relate to the New England whaling trade. Perhaps more surprising is the more thorough rewrite from Newfoundland, which keeps the familiar "We'll rant and we'll roar" opening in the chorus but sprouts verses that tell a story. Usually sung with the title "The Ryans and the Pittmans," the Newfoundland song has the upbeat melody familiar to most modern listeners and tells the story of a sailor, often identified as a Robert Pittman, who is confident his next voyage will bring him enough money that he can finally marry the love of his life. This song has also been covered by the modern Newfoundland folk-rock band Great Big Sea, albeit in a version where the storyline has some lacunae.

The form of the English sea song, which in most versions narrates a particular voyage, lends itself well to rewrites that change the particulars of where the narrator is going. This gives rise to an Australian cowboy song, "Brisbane Ladies," thought to have been penned by Saul Mendelsohn of Nanango, Queensland in the 1880s. "Brisbane Ladies" accurately lists stops on a traditional drovers' route from Brisbane to Augathella, Queensland.

Nautical versions of the song are perhaps most familiar to the modern American audience from the film Jaws, in which there's a scene where Quint sings the first verse in a slightly creepy manner. This has inspired what is perhaps the most different variant of the song in any modern tradition, by the band Fall on your Sword, in which quotes from the movie, and the New England version of "Spanish Ladies," and original material are brought together into a piece about a love triangle at sea between the characters of Jaws. "Spanish Ladies" may be old, but it hasn't lost its ability to inspire more artists these centuries later.

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