The ‘Balaena’ / The Noble Fleet of Whalers
A.L. Lloyd sang The ‘Balaena’, a song about the 1870s Baffin Bay whale fishing, in 1967 on his album Leviathan! Ballads & Songs of the Whaling Trade. He was accompanied by Alf Edwards, English concertina; Dave Swarbrick, fiddle; Martin Carthy, mandolin; and Trevor Lucas and Martyn Wyndham-Read singing chorus. This recording was also included in the French compilation Chants de Marins IV: Ballads, Complaintes et Shanties des Matelots Anglais.
A.L. Lloyd commented in the original album's sleeve notes:
One of the best-known whaling songs, perhaps because it was made relatively late in the history of the trade. Dundee was specially interested in whaling because her main industry, the jute manufacture, required whale oil. In 1973, the Dundee whaling fleet consisted of ten vessels, all equipped with steam power. Largest and proudest was Mr R. Kinne's Balaena, of 260 tons register, length 141 ft, with engines of 65 h.p. At that time, the fleet would leave Scotland during the first half of May, race across to Cape St John, Newfoundland, then northabout into the Davis Strait and the right-whale grounds of Melville Bay on the north west coast of Greenland. Around August they would be following the southerly migration of the whales to the Cumberland Sound on the east side of Baffin Land. With luck, by early November they would be back in Dundee, exulting over their success, like the men of the nuggety old Balaena who made this song.
Sam Richards and Tish Stubbs sang The Balaena in 1977 on their Saydisc album Invitation to North America. They noted:
Of all the older songs of the whaling trade only a handful survived on the lips of 20th century British whalermen. According to A.L. Lloyd, who worked on board a whaling ship prior to the 1939-45 war, ‘The Balaena’ was one of them. To add to that, the song is to this day one of the best known songs in Newfoundland where they call it The Old Polina—doubtless well loved because it mentions St Johns in the chorus. In fact it refers to a Scots ship out of Dundee where the jute manufacture used a lot of whale oil. The song is a bit of a bragging piece, apparently justifiably. ‘Balaena’ was the biggest and fastest. For many whalermen their contact with the North American continent was restricted to a short while ashore in St. Johns (where they obviously swapped songs), and a long time further north in the bitter cold of Baffin Bay and the coasts of Greenland.
Jim Reid sang The Balaena on his 1990 album with John Huband, Freewheeling Now. His liner notes commented:
On of the finest and best known whaling songs celebrating an important era in Dundee's history. Jim first heard the song from the English folk singer and retired submariner Cyril Tawney at a party after he had appeared at the Dundee Folk Club in the early 1960s. The host, Dr Denovan who was organiser of the Club, gave Jim an old copy of The Courier with the song printed in it—and The Balaena has been a favourite ever since. With this rollicking chorus, the whalemen of the 1850s would surely join the chorus and “challenge all both large and small fae Dundee to Saint John”.
Bobby Robb sang The Balaena on the 2014 anniversary anthology, The 40th Girvan Traditional Folkfestival.
A.L. Lloyd sings The ‘Balaena’
The noble fleet of whalers went sailing from Dundee,
Well-manned by British sailors to work upon the sea.
On the Western Ocean passage none with them can compare,
But the smartest ship to make the trip is Balaena, I declare.
Chorus (after each verse):
Oh, the wind is on her quarter, her engines working free,
There's not another whaler that sails out of Dundee.
Can beat the old Balaena, she needs no trial run,
And we challenged all, both great and small, from Dundee to St John.
It happened on a Tuesday, three days out of Dundee,
The gale took off her quarter-boat and a couple of men, you see.
It battered at her bulwarks, and her stanchions and her rails,
And left the old Balaena, boys, a-frothing in the gale.
Bold Jackman cut his canvas and he fairly raised his steam,
And Captain Guy wit Erin Boy was ploughing through the stream,
And the noble Terra Nova, her boilers nearly burst,
And still at the old whaling grounds, Balaena got there first.
And now the season's over and the ship half-full of oil,
Our flying jib boom points for home towards our native soil.
And when that we have landed, boys, where the rum is very cheap,
We'll drink success to the skippers's health for getting us over the deep.