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The Wounded Whale

[ Roud 2004 ; Ballad Index SWMS023 ; trad. / Archie Fisher]

Archie Fisher sang The Wounded Whale in 1976 on his Folk-Legacy album The Man With a Rhyme. He noted:

Collated from two versions in Gale Huntington’s Songs the Whalemen Sang, taken from the logs of the Maria (1846) and the Uncas (1843). The melody is a filleted, Dundee-influenced hybrid.

The song first came to my notice when I was browsing through Albe Dawson’s library. I was very moved by the detailed and compassionate description of the kill, and borrowed the book so that I could just let the song sink in slowly over a period of time. Forgive the “lump in my throat” style of singing over the last few verses.

Fairport Concention sang The Wounded Whale on their 1990 album The Five Seasons.

Steve Turner sang The Wounded Whale in 1984 on his Fellside album Eclogue.

Danny Spooner sang The Wounded Whale on his 2006 CD of songs of the whaling industry, The Great Leviathan. He noted:

In his book Songs the Whalemen Sang (Dover 1970), Gale Huntington notes that this appeared in two whale ship log books, those of the Dartmouth of New Bedford 1836 and the Uncas of New Bedford 1843. The versions vary slightly but it is one of the most moving and powerful songs from the 19th century whaling industry and probably my main influence in making this CD. It also appears as There She Blows in Joanna C. Colcord’s book Songs of the American Sailormen. I first heard it from the singing of a dear friend, Gordon McIntyre. Archie Fisher crafted the tune.


Danny Spooner sings The Wounded Whale

Low as the sun from the ocean bed is rising,
Clear on the waters a glimmering light throws;
Now from the masthead the lookouts are crying,
“Clear on yer lee-beam, a whale, there she blows.”

Wake all your sleepers, your larboard and your starboard men,
Main-yard a-back, and yer boats clear away,
Hard on our lee-beam, see the wide waters gleam,
Foaming, and billowing, in glorious array.

Now see old leviathan in vastness a-lying
Making of the ocean a sumptuous bed,
While high above him the seabirds are flying
Combing each billow that he breaks with his head.

High, wide and swimming, great flukes gently driving,
Stately and slowly he sinks in the main.
Now peak your oars awhile, rest from your weary toil,
Watching and waiting his rise once again.

Now row hearties row for the pride of your nation,
Lean on yer oars and let the reeking sweat flow.
Now for the blood let it have circulation,
Forward, on your thwarts, give way all ye know.

Now see how our boats advance, bravely and dancing
Flying like feathers over the dark blue main,
Harpooner, stand, give him some, send both your irons home.
Stern all, trim the boat, let the line run free.

Gallied and sore, fins and flukes in commotion,
Black skin and boats contending the spray,
While loud and shrill screams the horn of the ocean,
Wounded and lost, he brings to in dismay.

Now, haul line every man, gather in all you can,
Lances and spades from the thwarts clear away;
Now peak your oars again while fast each boat remains,
Safely and surely, we’ll hold him at bay.

Wounded and lost but with strength undiminished,
See how he lashes his great flukes in the air,
But a lance in the life and the struggle is finished,
See now he sinks, with his chimney on fire.

Now loud and shrill hear the cries of our sailors,
Mocking the whale in his terrible hour,
Watch him as he dies, see the blue signal flies.
Here he goes, “fin out,” the contest is o’er.