Part of the excitement in ancient genres like folk, bluegrass and traditional Irish is to hear new artists reinventing old songs.Something like “Blue Moon of Kentucky” or “Rocky Road to Dublin” may be decades or even centuries old, but in the hands of a contemporary artist, they come alive again and can be discovered by an all-new audience.
In the world of sea shanties, things haven’t progressed quite as much. Those songs like “Farewell to Nova Scotia” or “Fire Marengo”were once known by sailors around the world and sung as part of their workday routine. Aside from the occasional Celtic punk cover of “Drunken Sailor” or a Renaissance Faire setlist, those shanties have largely been forgotten. Any new recordings are done in a stilted, formal way, with the focus on preservation rather than entertainment.
John Kraus and The Goers is helping to breathe new life into these ancient songs. Kraus, who sings and plays guitar, ukulele and bazouki, ha sa considerable nautical background to match his musical pedigree. Blending those two loves into one project, Kraus and his band (David Dutton on percussion, Bob Aul on tuba, Tim Weed on the fiddle and Paul Givant on guitar and banjo) mix new and old nautical tunes with modern arrangements, coming up with something new and innovative in the genre.
“There are definitely groups that do maritime music. A lot of the traditional groups are groups of 8 to 10 men singing with pints of beer in front of them, from England or Ireland, singing a cappella. I don’t know of any other band that’s doing it with tuba and fiddle, though,” he says.
The band is a tight-knit ensemble. Kraus, Weed and Givant are all members of Rose’s Pawn Shop, an excellent Americana/country band from California that has released three albums to date. Aul is Kraus’ brother-in-law, and Dutton has been his friend and bandmate since the 1980s.The nautical approach stems from Kraus’ other career, as a captain of tall ships in California. That’s something that he picked up early on in his career by chance.
“I was moonlighting by volunteering on a historic tall ship out here in California called the Brig Pilgrim, out in Dana Point. It was just scraping and painting, but I quickly grew to love the history of it, working on board the boat and sailing,”he said.
Eventually, Kraus earned his 200-ton captain’s license and sailed the tall ships himself. As a natural extension of that, he heard the sea shanties that sailors have been singing on board for centuries. The Smithsonian Institute offers some recordings of these shanties, and there are other performers of shanty songs, but the majority of the recordings are devoted to the specific environment of being on a boat. Outside of that environment, Kraus says that he finds the recordings almost unlistenable.
“I really wanted to bring it to the 21st Century, and I started arranging different versions of some of these traditional songs, to make them a little more instrumental and a little more modern,” he says.
Kraus has released three albums of nautical music. The first album was largely a solo effort, with Dutton contributing percussion. The band has steadily grown to its current lineup. The most recent record, released earlier this year, Live on Land,serves as an excellent primer to what the Goers can do in concert. There are a few traditional sailing songs like “Fire Down Below” and “Liverpool Judies.”There is a Kraus original, “Cold in the Ocean,” which captures the feel of the shanty genre so well that, if not for a reference to gasoline, you’d swear was written two hundred years ago. Then there are a couple of choice modern-day covers, namely The Pogues’ “Drunken Boat” and Skip Henderson’s “Billy Bones.”
Live on Land helps to keep the new music coming until the whole band can get into the studio again.
“’Fire Down Below’ and ‘Drunken Boat,’ we wanted to get released. Those are always crowd favorites, and we wanted to make sure we got good recordings of those in particular,” Kraus says.
It’s understandable that “Fire Down Below” draws a reaction from an audience, because it blows away the expectations of anyone who thinks that sea shanties are all about deck-swabbing and “A Pirate’s Life for Me.” Fantastically profane, it probably shouldn’t be played in a car with children present (ask me how I know this), but the Goers play it with a reckless abandon that would be a hit with any crowd. The fast-paced “Drunken Boat” includes some truly exceptional tuba playing by Aul. Realistically, how often do you ever get to say, “That’s some exceptional tuba-ing!” in response to a song?
Dutton says that both he and Kraus come from a musically improvisational background, so the nature of the band suits him.
“John’s like, ‘Dave, do whatever you want,’ and I get to experiment with different types of vintage drums, hand drums and normal drums. It’s a lot of fun,” he says. “I always feel very, very thankful that I get to play with these guys. They can always take it to that other place where John and I love to go, to let it just happen.”
Or, as Kraus says, “Imagine a drunken Irish band that don’t know they’re ghosts, and they start improvising and going off into la-la land,instrumentally. That’s sort of how it happens. We do a little bit of Irish music, but we have these amazing musicians like Tim and Bob who are great jazz players.”
The sea shanty is an important part of folk music, but the problem is that it is so locked into its original environment — a tall ship with waves crashing around and seagulls screeching in the background — that atypical music listener can’t help but think of it as gimmicky. With a contemporary arrangement, the audience can appreciate all the drama, sadness,bawdiness or sly humor that these songs have — even if the concept of singing at work is a foreign one.
“It’s interesting today that people don’t want to sing while they work, because they usually have their earbuds in, listening to their phone. It’s one of those practices that have gone by the wayside,” Kraus notes.