Interview with Chris Ricketts
FolkWords talks to Chris Ricketts - English shanty singer
Listening to ‘Port of Escape’ by Chris Ricketts and fascinated by this album of shanties, FolkWords took the opportunity to talk to Chris (in a small gap in his busy touring schedule). We asked about his interest in the shanty, their origins and future, his interpretation of the art and his new album. For those unfamiliar with his work, Chris Ricketts is one of England’s up and coming exponents of the shantyman’s art.
FW: What sparked your interest in seafaring songs and shanties in particular?
CR: When I moved to Newcastle University I started to look deeply into shanty music. I suppose it had something to do with being so far away from my Portsmouth roots and wanting to learn more about a style that’s not widely served in folk circles.
FW: So is an album of shanties your ‘homage’ to your own heritage or simply the appeal of the shanty?
CR: There’s a bit of a mix between the two. At first, I didn’t have a clear idea of what lay in the shanty world it was just something that attracted me – a result of some deep-set roots I suppose. However, once I started learning more and began getting out there to sing shanties I found that people listened to shanties and enjoyed them. Interestingly, the shanty appears more popular throughout Europe than in the UK, which is strange considering we are an island race with a massive seafaring and naval heritage. Poland for example, is a rich vein for shanties – the working aspect of the songs remains popular and relevant. There are also some recent translations of shanties into the Polish language, which means they are not simply seen as old songs but as songs of today. That’s one reason I enjoy touring in Poland.
FW: Have shanties slipped in popularity over the years or perhaps become parodies of their original source?
CR: Yes, they’ve certainly become overplayed and as a result sometimes ‘morphed’ into something that was not intended – too often ‘bastardised’ versions of shanties are staple ‘singalong’ fare and lost much of the essence inherent in their meaning and history. To me these songs remain as important as they were during their time at sea. They are part of our heritage. They have a unique message. The trouble is they have become songs that are ‘bashed out in pubs’ rather than listened to. If you want to find albums purely dedicated to shanties it can be a difficult task.
FW: Do you consciously put a contemporary edge to the shanty?
CR: Yes definitely, that was a conscious decision – the shanties in their classic form our great on the album but I wanted to bring the shanty forward in time to make them even more accessible. I wanted to show how the style can change and develop within its format. That’s the reason for some of the arrangements, nothing is there without reason, it’s to give more to the shanty. I suppose you could say it’s similar to approaches artists like John Tams took with the military songs.
FW: Do some people refuse to accept a new style of shanties?
CR: Every shanty singer since the form began has put his own edge on every song. Some were inevitably more popular than others. There were changes to words, tunes, places and destinations - I really enjoy listening and singing traditional shanties but I also like to give the shanty my own edge. ‘Essequibo River’ has our own edge but it wasn’t forced, it just kind of fell together that way. You could say that ‘Port of Escape’ is a shanty album for non-shanty lovers.
FW: Have you explored American shanties?
CR: That’s probably the next step. It would be interesting to explore how shanties are treated around the world. There are well-known classics and undiscovered songs among the American River Shanties.
FW: How about exploring the whaling shanties of England and America?
CR: That would be interesting. There’s a wealth of material there, perhaps one day I’ll dive into those songs.
FW: The shanty format covers sea and river working songs, military songs and others. Do you see a lot of crossover?
CR: A lot of work-songs cross over from one work place to another, and I think that’s to be expected. There are certain slave-songs that cross over as well. There’s a definite essence and power within all forms of work song. A good example of cross-over is ‘Soldiers Joy’, there’s also ‘Sailors Joy’, similar tune, slightly different words - there are thousands more.
FW: What prompted you to dig into the shanty tradition?
CR: I’m no sailor but there’s something about the songs that connected with me, as I said earlier, whether that’s through my own heritage or an interest in the stories they tell. These are songs about community and the common language of music, and for many they offer a connection. Wherever in the world the work song originates, from the land or the sea, they show a strong sense of community. If you consider the lives of men on board ship often facing deprivation and danger then you can see how they would develop their own songs and stories. And don’t forget these men were often away for many months or even years at a time.
FW: Many songs 'live' on their tunes but shanties tend to rely on the voice – would you agree?
CR: I find the voice gives so much to a shanty – the emotion is always in the voice. When we were recording ‘Port of Escape’ I decided on two takes for the vocals on any particular song. If I didn’t hit it in two takes then I’d let it go and come back to it another day. I wanted the emotion on each song to be fresh and raw. I class myself more as a singer than a guitarist. I feel that I connect more with people with my voice. You’re stripped bare when your singing, you can’t change your voice it’s just you and you have to use it to get the emotion across.
FW: What hooks you to a particular shanty?
CR: It’s a mixture of the story itself, the emotion within the story, sometimes just a turn of phrase. It’s a collection of the aspects that make a song worth singing, that’s one reason I tend not to sing songs that I don’t feel emotionally attached to. If you have to learn a song without an emotional attachment you don’t end up with a song that people engage with. Shanties reach out to me, that’s what I want to do in turn, reach out to my audience. Some of the stories are tough, powerful even heartbreaking, it depends on the influence behind the shanty. ‘Boston and St John’s’ is the only non-shanty on the album and it’s there because of the emotion tied up in the song and what it stands for. The final track ‘Leave Her Johnny’ is normally a raucous end-of-journey shanty but I decided to look at it from a more ballad point of view and pour heartfelt emotion into the song.
FW: Did being thousands of miles or dozens of months from home put unique emotion into these songs?
CR: That’s true and I am pretty sure that originally many shanties had far more emotion put into them than many singers give them today. Another reason I want to get across the emotion in the song. Today you can fly to the other side of the world in 24 hours. That makes it hard for folk to comprehend that waving a ship good bye in Portsmouth meant you didn’t know if it would come back in 12 months or even return at all. The lives of sailors of long ago are often seen today as quite a romantic idea but it wasn’t like that at all. It was brutal dangerous and the chances were that you weren’t coming home.
FW: Do you see any resistance to any particular styles within folk, shanties for example?
CR: You can find every aspect of folk music if you want to go and look for it, and if you enjoy it that’s great, whether it’s the old bearded guy singing or the young guy with the Irish bouzouki, it’s still folk. If you want tradition you can find it. If you want nu-folk you can find it too. That’s what makes folk so good, the breadth and depth of what it is and what it can be. The prefect description is ‘music by folk for folk’ and I think that expression sits equally well with the shanty. It’s narrative music, environment music. It’s folk talking about what’s happening to them and the common sharing of experience. It’s adaptable and changeable and that’s also important. It is a living breathing thing – the tradition of tomorrow is being made today.
FW: Does the Internet help or hinder the development of folk music as it opens the floodgates to world-wide influences?
CR: The Internet is a massive aid to research. I don’t think that any pure songs exist anywhere for long. Every song has come from somewhere and someone else has embellished or added along the way. I can’t believe that any song has come down from its origins unchanged – and should someone write a brand new shanty tomorrow it would not be long before it was modified and adapted. Folk music, and hopefully shanties too, are filled with living, vibrant emotion that’s often missing from pop music. There’s also the in depth storytelling aspect of folk. The shanty has this too. Shanties are about places, sailors, ships, their experiences and their feelings.
Sometimes, I find that some traditionalists believe that nothing in folk should change. But at the end of the day why defend something that’s probably already changed dozens of times over the years. Folk is full of development, both in music and song, and individual interpretation down the years. That begs the question why shouldn’t shanties work in the same way? And I don’t have any problem at all with artists adding their own edge to the songs they sing.
FW: Are you proud of the way ‘Port of Escape’ turned out and was it as expected or did it change on the way?
CR: I’m proud of it - of course others may take a different view. I think it’s the best piece of work I’ve ever recorded, whether people love it or hate it – but I hope they love it. Who knows? We’ll find out when it’s released in November this year.
© FolkWords - 2011