Long before there was a world music category, I used to go to a record store in Toronto called Sam the Record Man. It was a large, ramshackle, rambling three-story building which took up most of a corner lot on the major drag. The main floor of the building was taken up with popular music in the front and classical music in the back. Walking in off the street was like walking into bedlam, with different music playing out of a variety of speakers and posters advertising everybody from Elvis Presley to the latest chart toppers. Just past the cash register was an old wooden staircase leading to the upper floors. Ascending, you entered a quieter world where they stored both jazz and blues and a catch-all section called “folk”.
In those days, folk meant everything from Joni Mitchell to the massed pipes of The Blackwatch playing Scottish folk tunes on bagpipes. It was in this section you could also find music from almost every country on earth, everything from the traditional music of obscure island countries in the South Pacific to Inuit throat singers. Most of the records in this section were courtesy of people who traveled the world making what are known as field recordings. Using portable equipment, they would set up shop literally anywhere, from somebody’s living room to the fields where people were singing as they worked. What these recordings may have lacked in quality was more than compensated for by their authenticity.
The American music anthropologist Alan Lomax traveled all over the world making field recordings, with a strong focus on North and South America. In 1962 he made a trip to the Caribbean, which included the outermost western island of Grenada. It was here he made the recordings of the fisherman and sailors who worked the boats plying the waters off the island now being released as the digital recording Roll and Go: Chanteys and Sailor Songs From Grenada by Global Juke Box Records.
The 14 tracks you’ll hear on this recording don’t sound anything like the nice, clean, gentrified stuff being passed off as sea chanteys in so-called pirate movies gracing the cinemas these days. In fact, they’re not going to sound much like any recordings you’ve heard anyone do of this type of music before. The closest thing to it might have been some of Harry Belafonte’s calypso versions of old work songs, but those were cleaned up and made pretty for mainstream audiences. The first thing you’ll notice on hearing these songs is you’re not going to understand more than one word in 10 of what they sing. For even though you’ll recognize the language they’re singing as English, their island patois is so strong it’s almost impossible to discern individual words.
The next thing you’ll notice is the songs are chanted more than sung and while there are a group of men singing, they aren’t singing as a group. Instead, most of the songs take the form of what’s known as call-and-response. One man, probably the crew chief or the person setting the stroke for men rowing a boat, will call out a line and the rest of the men will either echo the line back or call out a response to the line as if answering a question. On occasion you’ll hear the responding voices call out a variety of answers at once and it might sound confusing to our ears. However, no matter what is being said or how many different things are being chanted in return, it’s always done to the same rhythm as the initial call out.
Some of the songs have titles you might be familiar with, “Blow the Man Down” for instance, and that’s not surprising. For these songs are versions of tunes which came from New England and Great Britain. The people of Grenada would have either learned them from sailors putting into port at the island or because they had ancestors who had been slaves on those boats. Wherever the songs came from though, they made them their own by adapting them to the music of the islands. So on occasion you’ll hear traces of calypso, soca, and even older West African rhythms under familiar sounding lyrics.
On the majority of the tracks you’re going to hear one voice more than others. The man’s name is Charlie Bristol and his is the voice leading the others in the call and response. Like everyone else involved, Bristol is obviously not a trained vocalist, but he has the type of voice which commands you pay attention. You listen to him calling out the cadences and you almost feel compelled to respond yourself. Even sitting at home you can visualize his crew and him at their oars and his voice easily being heard over whatever sounds the sea or the weather could send in opposition against him.
Roll and Go: Chanteys and Sailor Songs From Grenada is a fascinating collection of songs which gives the listener a glimpse into a way of life possibly dating back to early colonial times. While some of the tracks may have familiar titles, the way in which they are sung makes them unique. This is an introduction to a culture few of us have ever experienced and a style of music not heard as often as it once was. Even though the songs were recorded on what to us is primitive equipment, the sound is remarkably clear and clean. As a historical record this is invaluable, but its true value lies in the enjoyment to be found in listening to these men sing. They might have sung these songs in order to ease the tedium of what must have been hard labour, but you’d never know it by the way they sound.