FS06: The London Waterman

This appears to be a folk-processed version of a song that was written in 1774, although the differences are so great that it could almost be a different song. The ‘waterman’ is a ferryman: before the great bridge-building period of the nineteenth century, if you didn’t cross the Thames on London Bridge itself your best option was to find a waterman who’d row you over in his wherry. (The picture on the Bandcamp page shows the only surviving wherryman’s seat – stone benches for the watermen to rest between fares used to be a common piece of riverside street furniture. The seat’s been relocated, but it’s survived two centuries and more – like the song.)

I got this song from Peter Bellamy’s recording. Learning it – and learning how to sing it, which is slightly different – helped me understand why Bellamy sang the way he did, with that pouncing, declamatory attack on the lines. The short answer is that he did it because it works – it really gets you under the skin of the song. Also, taking a song by the scruff like this is fun – and it’s not pretty, which for some of us at least is a virtue. (My son heard me practising this song and said, “Well, Dad, you definitely sing merry.”)

Plus, this week, a tune! I go to a local singaround and tunes session, held on alternate weeks with overlapping participants. Something that’s particularly enjoyable is fitting a tune to a song – apart from anything else, it lets us sneak some songs in when we’re playing tunes. So we regularly segue from “Waters of Tyne” into Sir John Fenwick’s, for example. We’ve never yet done the Waterman and the Morris tune Constant Billy, which I’ve put together here, but I think it could work. I might have to work on the high notes, though – when I came to put the recordings together it turned out that my voice had rather lazily pitched the song in F rather than the more demanding G, so I had to process the whistle digitally to make it come out in the right key. (It was that or go out and buy an F whistle, and it was raining.)

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Filed under folk song, Peter Bellamy, traditional

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