> A.L. Lloyd > Songs > The Weary Whaling Grounds

The Weary Whaling Grounds / The Wings of a Goney

[ Roud 2011 ; Ballad Index HunW0401 ; DT WINGGULL ; Mudcat 76908 ; trad.]

The Weary Whaling Grounds is a song about the 1840-50 Greenland right whale fishing.

A.L. Lloyd, Trevor Lucas, and Martyn Wyndham-Read sang The Weary Whaling Grounds in 1967 on their album Leviathan! Ballads & Songs of the Whaling Trade. This recording was also included in the French compilation Chants de Marins IV: Ballads, Complaintes et Shanties des Matelots Anglais, on the Topic compilation CD The Folk Collection, and in 2001 on the Fellside compilation CD Voices in Harmony.

A.L. Lloyd noted on the original album:

Three emotions dominated the oldtime whalerman: exultion in the chase, a longing for home, and disgust at the conditions of his trade. This latter mood descended heaviest upon him when the fishing was poor and he became “whalesick” (like homesick, only sick for whales). The man who made the complaint for The Weary Whaling Grounds must have been very whalesick. An odd point: The song speaks of leaving “old Greenland’s icy grounds” and indicates a trip of four years’ duration. The very long trips only occurred in the Southern fishery; the Greenland season was usually but a matter of months, though ships sometimes stayed all winter on the entrance to the Davis Strait so as to make an early start next season.

John Roberts and Tony Barrand recorded this song as The Wings of a Goney in 1975 for their album Mellow With Ale From the Horn. They noted:

The albatross, known to deep-water sailors as a goney or gooney-bird, appears again as a symbol of freedom and escape in The Wings of a Goney. Probably presenting a much truer picture of the whalerman’s life than the many more lively songs which express the exuberance and excitement of the chase, this little lament was found by Gale Huntington in the logbook of a New Bedford whaler. Our variant comes from the singing of A.L. Lloyd, who has given the song a more British flavor.

Canterbury Fair sang The Weary Whaling Grounds on their eponymous 1977 album Canterbury Fair. They noted:

Prof. W.J. Dakin said in his Whalemen Adventures (Angus and Robertson, 1938): “Of all human occupations few have aroused more interest in the story-loving public than whaling.” This is a fair enough statement, though it is one thing to read about such a life and quite another to be employed in it, as this superb song shows. A.L. Lloyd, in his notes to Leviathan!, rightly points out that the four year trip a mentioned in this song only occurred in the Southern Ocean Fishery. Nevertheless, as folk song is a continuing art, it is not difficult to appreciate the use of the dramatic effect.

Swan Arcade sang The Weary Whaling Grounds in 1986 on their Fellside album Diving for Pearls.

Martin Hall sang The Weary Whaling Grounds in 1992 on his Fellside cassette Ringing the Changes. He noted:

When playing this, one of my favourite songs with accordion, I drifted into a tune—The Brown Milkmaid, which despite the title, fits the mood and the arrangement has stuck.

Battlefield Band sang The Weary Whaling Grounds on their 1995 Temple album Threads. They noted:

Iain [MacDonald]’s father was one of the last commercial whaling sailors from Britain, as was the eminent folklorist A.L. Lloyd, who put this version of this song together, originally from Newfoundland sources. Whatever you think of the ethics of whaling these days, the interest for us in songs like this lies in the graphic description of the hardships and company exploitation undergone by these sailors in past times. The tune used at the beginning and end is that of a Scottish song of the whaling days, Farewell to Tarwathie.

Danny Spooner and Duncan Brown sang The Weary Whaling Grounds on Spooner’s 2006 CD of songs of the whaling industry, The Great Leviathan and on their 2016 CD of songs of the working life, Labour and Toil. The first album’s note commented:

This song reminds us of the finite nature of our natural resources. By the second half of the eighteenth century the Arctic Right Whale was under threat from over fishing. This version is possibly an adaption of the American song, The Wings of a Goney (albatross) which appears in Gale Huntington’s Songs the Whalemen Sang and explains how the sailors often owed to much to the ship’s shop chest at the end of the voyage; they had little money left to show for years of hard work.

and the second one’s:

The words come from the mid-1800s when the Arctic Right Whale was under threat from over-fishing. Long voyages, terrible conditions, stale food and vast stretches of boredom were punctuated by brief frenzied, perilous, exhilarating but terrifying bursts of action. And all for a poor reward at the end. The four-year trip of this lament would probably have occurred in the Southern whaling grounds—the men sailing round Cape Horn and up the wet and blusterous coast of Chile.


A.L. Lloyd sings The Weary Whaling Grounds

If I had the wings of a gull, my boys,
I would spread ’em and fly home.
I’d leave old Greenland’s icy grounds
For of right whales there is none.

And the weather’s rough and the winds do blow
And there’s little comfort her.
I’d sooner be snug in a Deptford pub,
A-drinkin’ of strong beer.

Oh, a man must be mad or want money bad
To venture catchin’ whales.
For we may be drowned when the fish turns around
Or our head be smashed by his tail.

Though the work seems grand to the young green hand,
And his heart is high when he goes,
In a very short burst he’d as soon hear a curse
As the cry of: “There she blows!”

“All hands on deck now, for God’s sake,
Move briskly if you can.”
And he stumbles on deck, so dizzy and sick;
For his life he don’t give a damn.

And high overhead the great flukes spread,
And the mate gives the whale the iron,
And soon the blood in a purple flood
From the spout-hole comes a-flying!

Well, these trials we bear for night four year,
Till the flying jib points for home.
We’re supposed for our toil to get a bonus of the oil,
And an equal share of the bone.

But we go to the agent to settle for the trip,
And we’ve find we’ve cause to repent.
For we’ve slaved away four years of our life
And earned about three pound ten.


The lyrics were copied from the Leviathan! sleeve notes.