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The Greenland Whale Fishery

[ Roud 347 ; Master title: The Greenland Whale Fishery ; Laws K21 ; G/D 1:9 ; Ballad Index LK21 ; VWML CJS2/10/1132 ; Bodleian Roud 347 ; Wiltshire 701 ; DT GREENLAN , GRNFISH ; Mudcat 18356 ; trad.]

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The Greenland Whale Fishery is a song about the Spitsbergen right whale fishing in the 1720s. According to Greig, it “appears in The Mavis, a collection of songs published at Glasgow about 1820, and has also had a wide circulation as a broadside ballad.” The oldest broadside version in the Bodleian Libraries is from before 1825. A.L. Lloyd below mentions a broadside that is a hundred years older but I don’t know where it should be located. A version collected by Anne Gilchrist in 1906 from W. Bolton, Southport, Lancashire, was printed in A.L. Lloyd and Vaughan Williams’ Penguin Book of English Folk Songs (1959).

David Pryor form Grantstown, Bahamas, sang When the Whale Ger Strike in an August 1935 field recording made by Alan Lomax and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle. It was included in 1999 on the Rounder anthology Bahamas 1935 in the Alan Lomax Collection / Deep River of Song series.

A.L. Lloyd sang The Greenland Whale Fishery in 1954/5 on his, Ewan MacColl and Harry H. Corbett’s Topic album The Singing Sailor. This recording was reissued on their albums Singing Sailors (Wattle Records, Australia) and Off to Sea Once More (Stinson Records, USA).

A.L. Lloyd also recorded this song for his and Ewan MacColl’s Riverside LP Thar She Blows!, where it was called Sperm Whale Fishery, and, for a third time, in 1967 for the album Leviathan! Ballads and Songs of the Whaling Trade. He commented in the latter album’s sleeve notes:

This is the oldest—and many think the best—of surviving songs of the whaling trade. It had already appeared on a broadside around 1725, very shortly after the South Sea Company decided to resuscitate the then moribund whaling industry, and sent a dozen fine large ships around Spitsbergen and the Greenland Sea. The song went on being sung with small changes all the time to bring it up to date. Our present version mentions the year 1834, the ship Lion, its captain Randolph. Other versions give other years, and name other ships and skippers (there was a whaler the Lion, out of Liverpool, but her captain’s name was Hawkins, and she was lost off Greenland in 1817). We may take it that the incident described in the song is not historical but imaginary, a stylisation like those thrilling engravings of whaling scenes that were once so popular. But the song’s pattern of departure, chase, and return home, was imitated in a large number of whaling ballads made subsequently. It is the ace and deuce of whale songs.

Ewan MacColl sang just three verses—5, 8 and 9—of The Greenland Whale Fishery in the musical score of the 1962 film Whaler Out of New Bedford.

Paul Clayton sang The Greenland Whale Fisheries in 1956 on his Tradition album Whaling and Sailing Songs From the Days of Moby Dick. He noted:

Of the forecastle songs relating directly to whaling which have survived, this one is probably the most popular, dating back to the 18th century. The character of the captain varies in different versions. Sometimes he grieves more for his drowned sailors than for the lost whale; in the version I sing, he is more disturbed by the losing of the whale than over the loss of his men.

Philip Hamon and Hilary Carre of Sark on the Channel Islands sang The Whale Fishery on the anthology Sailormen and Servingmaids (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 6; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1970).

The Watersons sang a concise six-verse version of The Greenland Whale Fishery in 1965 on their very first record, New Voices. This wonderful recording was included on the Topic sampler Sea Songs and Shanties and on the French compilation Chants de Marins IV: Ballads, Complaintes et Shanties des Matelots Anglais, was reissued in 1994 on the Watersons’ CD Early Days, and was included in 1993 on the Topic sampler Blow the Man Down: Sea Songs and Shanties and in 2004 on the Watersons’ 4 CD anthology Mighty River of Song.

A.L. Lloyd commented in the New Voices sleeve notes:

How old is this song? In the Watersons’ version the date 1864 is given, which is thirty years too late for Greenland whaling, for by 1830 the Greenland grounds were fished out and the expeditions had transferred their attention to the seas of Baffin Bay. In any case, we know the song is very much older than it seems, for it was already in print as a broadside before 1725. The Dutch and English had opened up the Greenland grounds (where, by the way, they fished for right whales, not sperm whales) early in the sixteenth century so the song came into being some time between then and the opening years of the eighteenth. It remained a great favourite, being reprinted over and again by broadside publishers, and many versions of it have been collected from country singers during the present century. It’s one of the great sea songs.

Mike Waterson and Louis Killen sang The Greenland Whale Fishery in 1965 in the BBC TV documentary about the Watersons, Travelling for a Living.

Paul McNeill sang Greenland Whale on his 1966 Decca album Traditionally at the Troubadour.

Martyn Wyndham-Read, Danny Spooner, Gordon McIntyre, and Peter Dickie sang Greenland Whale Fishery in 1966 on the Australian album A Wench, a Whale and a Pint of Good Ale.

Stuart Gillespie sang The Greenland Fishery on the 1978 Folkways album Sea Chanties and Forecastle Songs at Mystic Seaport. This track was also included in 2004 on the Smithsonian Folkways anthology Classic Maritime Music. The accompanying booklet noted:

The Davis Straits and other Arctic waters off Greenland were the customary hunting grounds of Dutch and British whaleships as early as the seventeenth century (see The Coast of Peru). Thus, it is not surprising that many of the British whaling songs produced in the ensuing three hundred years should be set in a Greenland locale. The Greenland Fishery, perhaps the most famous and most widely sung of all whaling songs, recounts a tragic episode, the likes of which awaited all whalemen as they launched 30-foot whaleboats from the mother ship to do battle with the Leviathan, Some of the dozen or more major variants of the song give a date as early as the 1790s, considerably earlier than the 1853 date in Stuart Gillespie’s version here, and some authorities believe that it may have originated in some specific voyage in the eighteenth century. But the events it relates were so common in whaling as to be universal; the story could apply to virtually any whaleship in virtually any whale fishery worldwide; no doubt many whalemen, British and Yankee, adopted it as their own. The Captain’s final irony is in itself a telling piece of whaling memorabilia; for another thing that was universal in whaling all over the world was the profit-hungry owners’ and captains’ disregard for the welfare, safety, and lives of their crews.

Dave Baumgarten with Blue Sandrock sang Greenland Fisheries at the Seattle Chantey Festival during the American Sail Training Association’s 1978 Tall Ships Pacific. This recording was published in the following year on the festival anthology Sea Songs Seattle.

The Pogues recorded Greenland Whale Fisheries in 1984 for their first album, Red Roses for Me, and Van Dyke Parks sang it in 2006 on Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys.

Isla St Clair sang The Greenland Whale Fishery in her BBC Radio 2 series Tatties & Herrin’, transmitted in 1995. It was also included in 1997 on one of the two Greentrax CDs compiled from this programme, Tatties & Herrin’: The Sea.

Finlay and Hamish Napier sang Greenland Whale Fisheries on the 2001 CD Gillian Frame & Back of the Moon.

Joyce and Danny MacLeod sang The Greenland Whale Fishery on the 2004 Lancaster Maritime Festival compilation, Beware of the Press-Gang!!.

This YouTube video shows the Exmouth Shanty Men singing Greenland Whale Fisheries at the Blackmoor Theatre Exmouth in November 2008:

Bodega sang Greenland in 2006 on their eponymous Greentrax CD Bodega. They noted:

Norrie [MacIver] heard Greenland being performed by Back of the Moon during his induction week at the music school in Plockton. The song is about whalers who try to catch a whale so large it sunk their boat with one swipe of its tail!

Katherine Campbell sang the Whale Fishing Song in 2009 on the CD accompanying her book Songs From North-East Scotland, “a selection for performers from The Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection”. James B. Duncan collected this version on 19 December 1906 from Archibald Knowles (1838-1924).

Jon Boden sang Greenland Whale Fishery as the 4 August 2010 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. He noted in the blog:

My first introduction to The Watersons was on a Topic LP Sea Songs and Shanties that I borrowed from Winchester library at a tender age. I had heard Norma sing on the first Waterson:Carthy album but was absolutely knocked out by the ferocity of the sound the three siblings and cousin John could produce. This was one of [four] Waterson tracks on the album.

Tom and Barbara Brown sang Greenland Fishery in 2014 on their WildGoose album of songs collected by Cecil Sharp from two retired sea captains in Minehead, Somerset, Just Another Day. He noted this song on 8 September 1906 from Captain Lewis (1835-1915) [VWML CJS2/10/1132] .

David Milton sang Greenland Fisheries on his 2018 CD Songs From the Bell Man. Here, the captain is surprisingly benign. Milton noted:

This was another song [besides The Watchet Sailor] I learnt from the singing of Gordon Kidd, this time it was in my teenage years. Porlock harbour was exceptionally busy, so the songs of the sailing families were strong in that area. Moby Dick was my favourite film as a child, and I think that’s why this song has stayed with me so long.

Kris Drever sang The Greenland Whale Fishery in 2024 on Ben Nicholl’s Hudson album Duets.


A.L. Lloyd sings The Greenland Whale Fishery

We may no longer stay ashore
Since we’re so deep in debt.
So off to Greenland we will steer
Some money for to get, brave boys,
Some money for to get.

It was eighteen hundred and thirty-four,
On March the seventeenth day,
That we hoist our colours to the top of the tree
And for Greenland bore away, brave boys,
For Greenland bore away

John Randolph was our captain’s name,
Our ship the Lion so bold.
We had fifteen men and they were brave
For to face the wind and cold, brave boys,
To face the wind and cold

It was when we come to them icy grounds
Our good ship for to moor.
It was then that we wished ourselves back again
With the pretty girls ashore, brave boys,
With the pretty girls ashore

Our bosun he goes up aloft
With a spyglass in his hand.
“It’s a whale, a whale, oh a whale-fish,” he cries,
“And he blows at every span, brave boys,
And he blows at every span.”

Our captain walked on the quarterdeck
And the ice was in his eye
“Overhaul, overhaul, let your davit tackle falls.”
And we launch our boats all three, brave boys,
We launch our boats all three.

Well, every keel had its bold harpooner,
It’s pikeaneer a steerer also,
And four jolly tars for to pull at the oars.
And a-whaling we did go, brave boys,
Oh a-whaling we did go.

Well, our boats got down, and the men all in
And the whale was full in view.
Resolved, resolved, was them whalermen so bold
To strike when the whale-fish blew, brave boys,
To strike when the whale-fish blew.

Well, the harpoon struck, and down went the whale
With a flourish of his tail.
And by chance we lost two men overboard.
No more Greenland for you, brave boys,
And we never caught that whale.

When the captain heard of the loss of his men,
It grieved his heart full sore.
But when he heard of the loss of the whale,
It was half-mast colours all, brave boys,
It was half-mast colours all.

The winter star did now appear,
And it’s time our anchor for to weigh,
To stow below our running gear
And from Greenland bear away, brave boys,
From Greenland bear away.

Oh, that Greenland is a dreadful place,
No longer can we stay.
Now the cold winds blow and the whales do go
And it’s seldom ever day, brave boys,
It’s seldom ever day.

The Watersons sing The Greenland Whale Fishery

They took us jolly sailor lads
A-fishing for the whale.
On the fourth day of August in 1864
Bound for Greenland we set sail.

The lookout stood on the cross-trees high
With a spyglass in his hand.
“There’s a whale, there’s a whale, there’s a whale-fish,” he cried,
“And she blows at every span.”

The captain stood on the quarterdeck,
And a sod of a man was he.
“Overhaul, overhaul, let your davit tackles fall.”
And we’ll launch them boats to sea.

We struck that whale and the line played out
But she gave a flurry with her tail.
And the boat capsized, we lost seven of our men,
And we never caught that whale.

Now the losing of seven fine seamen,
It grieved the captain sore.
But the losing of a bloody sperm whale
Oh, it grieved him ten times more.

Now, Greenland is a horrid place,
Where our fisher lads have to go,
Where the rose and the lily never bloom in spring;
No there’s only ice and snow.

Stuart Gillespie sings The Greenland Fishery

It was eighteen-hundred and fifty-three
On June the thirteenth day,
Our good ship she did anchor weigh
And for Greenland bore away, brave boys,
And for Greenland bore away.

Well the lookout on the crosstrees stood
With a spy-glass in his hand.
“There’s a whale, there’s a whale, there’s a whale!” he cried,
“And she blows at every span, brave boys,
And she blows at every span!”

Well, our Captain stood on the quarterdeck
And a sour little man was he.
“Overhaul, overhaul, let your davit tackles fall!
And you put your boats to the sea, brave boys,
And you put your boats to the sea!”

So our boats were launched and the crew aboard
And the whale was in full view.
Resolved is each seaman bold to steer,
To steer where the whalefish blew, brave boys,
To steer where the whalefish blew.

Well, the whale was struck and the line paid out
But she gave a flourish with her tail.
And our boat capsized and four men were drowned
And we never caught that whale, brave boys,
And we never caught that whale.

“Oh, to lose four men,” the Captain sighed,
“It grieves my heart full sore;
But, ah! to lose the whale," he cried,
“It grieves me ten times more, brave boys,
It grieves me ten times more!”

David Milton sings Greenland Fisheries

In eighteen-hundred-and-forty-three,
On March the thirteenth day,
Our gallant ship her anchor weighed,
Bound for Greenland bore away (break oars!),
Bound for Greenland bore away.

The lookout in the crow tree’s nest
With a spyglass in his hand:
“There’s a whale, there’s a whale! There’s a whale fish, my boys!
And she blows with every span (break oars!),
and she blows with every span.”

The captain stood on the quarter deck,
For a gallant man was he,
“Haul away haul away! Let your belly tackles fall,
And put your boats to sea (break oars!),
And put your boats to sea.”

The boats were launched and the men aboard
And the whale ’twas soon in view.
“Please row, please row, haul away and go!”
And we steered to where the whale fish blew (break oars!),
And we steered to where the whale fish he blew.

The harpoon struck and the line played out,
And she gave an awesome flick of her tail.
The boat capsized, we lost four sailor boys,
And we never caught that whale (break oars!),
And we never caught that whale.

The losing of that bloody sperm whale fish
Oh it grieved our captain sore,
But the losing of those jolly sailor boys
Oh it grieved him ten times more (break oars!),
Oh it grieved him ten times more.

Now Greenland is a barren place,
’Tis a place that’s seldom green,
There’s ice and snow and the whale fish he blows
And daylight seldom seen (break oars!),
And daylight seldom seen.

Acknowledgements and Links

The Watersons’ version was transcribed by Garry Gillard. A.L. Lloyd’s version is from the Leviathan! sleeve notes. Stuart Gillespie’s version is from his Folkways album’s booklet.

See also Jon Wilks’ Folk from the Attic blog The Greenland Whale Fishery.