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The Grey Funnel Line

[Cyril Tawney]

Cyril Tawney wrote this melancholy song in 1959 before he left the Royal Navy. The title The Grey Funnel Line is an euphemism for the Navy, equating the colour of its funnels with those of company emblems found on commercial shipping lines (e.g. the Blue Funnel Line or the Black Ball Line). The song, though romantic, does show the boredom, loneliness, and longing for home that afflicts many who work on modern screw-driven vessels, be it naval or merchant marine. His own recordings of The Grey Funnel Line can be found on his Argo LP In Port (1972) and on his Neptune cassette Sally Free and Easy (1989); the latter was reissued on the CD Navy Cuts: The Songs of Cyril Tawney.

Cyril Tawney wrote on his now defunct own website about his song:

This was the last song I wrote before I left the Royal Navy in 1959. ‘The Grey Funnel Line’ is the sailors' nickname for the Royal Navy—just as if it were another mercantile line. It's a straightforward song about a sailor leaving home and the loved one. He's extremely fed up with the Senior Service and he'd rather be outside, but he has to go away yet again. On occasions like this I think the close of the first day out, as the sun is setting, is the time when we're most vulnerable to nostalgia. There's a shanty with the refrain ‘Rock and roll me over for one more day’, and this gave me the idea for my own refrain ‘It's one more day on The Grey Funnel Line’.

The words of verse two had actually been written as far back as 1953. I was on the aircraft carrier Indefatigable and I'd bought a book of American folk songs collected by the Lomaxes. I particularly liked a short Negro lament called simply Dink's Song, after the woman who sang it. Her words began ‘If I had wings like Norah's dove, I'd fly up the river to the man I love, fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well’. I started to sing it on the Indefat. but I adapted it to ‘If I had wings like Noah's dove, I'd fly up harbour to the girl I love, fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well’. I also wrote a verse of my own ‘The finest ship that sailed the sea is still a prison for the likes of me’. You have to remember that though I was only 22 I'd already been in the Navy for seven years and was bound for a further seven. ‘The likes of me’ referred to a young man who had discovered too late that he had other gifts, which were of little use in Her Majesty's Fleet. Anyway, when I came to write The Grey Funnel Line six years later I found I was able to join these two couplets together to make a four-line verse.

The next verse, three, has perhaps an even more interesting history. It was a long time before I began writing down the words of my songs; my theory was that if they weren't memorable enough to stay in my own head, then they weren't likely to stay in other people's. It was a foolish notion and, as it turned out, a risky one. I'll never know whether I've ever lost any worthwhile verses that way, but I nearly lost this one. Luckily for me, in 1960 I formed what turned out to be a lifelong friendship with a fellow folk pioneer, Lou Killen from Gateshead, and around the end of that year I went up to spend New Year with him and to do a sort of booking at the Newcastle Folk Club. Lou had a tape recorder at home and I sang him all the songs I'd written so far. In time, we both became established folk professionals touring the length and breadth of Britain. In 1962 I started a folk club in Plymouth and Lou became a frequent guest. On one occasion in 1964 he was booked just before Christmas and we adjourned to a member's house for an informal party. My host asked me if I'd sing his favourite, The Grey Funnel Line, but I declined because I'd heard from other people that Lou had been singing it around the clubs and, out of curiosity, I wanted to hear it. When he sang it there was this rather attractive verse comparing the lover's heart with a floating spar that had been washed ashore. Thinking I was hearing it for the first time, I congratulated Lou on the extra verse he'd written, especially as he'd never shown any talent in that direction before. He smiled across at me and said 'I didn't write that, you did'. It was lucky he'd taped the song five years earlier. I then had to learn the damned verse from him and add it to my own performance.

To go back to that New Year recording in 1960, another interesting thing was that when I'd finished singing The Grey Funnel Line for Lou he remarked that in a way the tune had come full circle. I asked him to explain and he reminded me that it was reminiscent of the tune of the cowboy song Bury Me Not On The Lone Prairie which, in turn, was a reworking of the sailor's song The Ocean BurialBury me not in the deep, deep sea'. So in The Grey Funnel Line we have a related tune being used once again for a sailor's song.

A ‘walkashore’, by the way, is a means whereby it's possible to pass from ship to shore and back again without the need of a boat, even though the ship isn't alongside. It's usually a series of pontoons, and it's generally only used if the ship in question is at a fairly permanent berth. The only walkashore I ever remember using was from the Submarine Depot Ship Forth in Malta. Modern Anglo-Saxon compounds fascinate me, so I couldn't resist getting the word into a song.

The Clancy Brothers with Louis Killen recorded The Grey Funnel Line in 1972 for their album Save the Land; and Louis Killen sang it at the Festival of the Sea 1980 at the National Maritime Museum, San Francisco. This concert was published on the Folkways LP Sea Music of Many Lands: The Pacific Heritage.

Maddy Prior and June Tabor sang The Grey Funnel Line (with Nic Jones and Brian Golbey playing fiddle and Danny Thompson on bass) in 1976 on their album Silly Sisters, and June Tabor sang it again in 2011 on her Topic CD Ashore where she commented in her liner notes:

There comes a time in every sailor's life when he needs to make the choice between a life at sea and a life ashore. Cyril Tawney served in the Royal Navy in the 1950s, chiefly in the Mediterranean. All the great shipping lines that sailed the seaways of the world in those days were known familiarly by the insignia painted on their funnels—the White Star line etc. The funnels of Royal Navy vessels were always painted a plain gun-metal grey.

This YouTube video shows June Tabor singing The Grey Funnel Line at LSO St Luke's, London:

Further recordings of The Grey Funnel Line:

Lyrics

Don't mind the rain or the rolling sea,
The weary night never worries me.
But the hardest time in sailor's day
Is to watch the sun as it dies away.
    It's one more day on the Grey Funnel Line.

The finest ship that sailed the sea
Is still a prison for the likes of me.
But give me wings like Noah's dove,
I'd fly up harbour to the girl I love.
    It's one more day on the Grey Funnel Line.

There was a time my heart was free
Like a floating spar on the open sea.
But now the spar is washed ashore,
It comes to rest at my real love's door.
    It's one more day on the Grey Funnel Line.

Every time I gaze behind the screws
Makes me long for old Peter's shoes.
I'd walk right down that silver lane
And take my love in my arms again.
    It's one more day on the Grey Funnel Line.

Oh Lord, if dreams were only real
I'd have my hands on that wooden wheel.
And with all my heart I'd turn her round
And tell the boys that we're homeward bound.
    It's one more day on the Grey Funnel Line.

I'll pass the time like some machine
Until blue water turns to green.
Then I'll dance on down that walk ashore
And sail the Grey Funnel Line no more.
    And sail the Grey Funnel Line no more.

© Cyril Tawney 1959