When first I landed in Liverpool I went upon a spree
My money alas I spent it fast got drunk as drunk could be
When my money was all gone on whisky and on whores
I made up my mind that I was inclined to go to sea no more
As I was walking down the street I met with Angeline
She said come home with me my lad and we’ll have a cracking time
When I awoke it was no joke I found I was all alone
My silver watch and my money too and my whole bloody gear was gone
As I was walking down the street I met with Rapper Brown
I asked him would he take me in and he answered me with a frown
He said last time you was paid up with me you chalked no score
But I’ll take your advance and I’ll give you a chance to go to sea once more
Well he shipped me on board of a whaling ship bound for the Arctic seas
Where the cold winds blow and the ice and the snow Jamaica rum would freeze
But worse to bear I’d no hard-weather gear for I’d lost all my dunnage on shore
It was then that I wished that I was dead and could go to sea no more
So come all you bold seafaring lads and listen to my song
And if you go on a big whaling ship I’d have you not go wrong
Take my tip when you come off a trip don’t go sleeping with them whores
But get married instead and spend all night in bed and go to sea no more
In the old sailing days, the crew’s quarters were in the fo’c’sle (i.e. the forecastle; to landlubbers it’s the front of the ship, downstairs). When off watch, sailors would gather in the fo’c’sle and sing songs – not shanties, which were for working to. If the weather were clement they might go up top and lounge around, with the singer taking pride of place and getting the best seat – on the iron or wooden ‘bitts’, posts for cables, chains and so on. From this, we get the word ‘forebitter’. Go to Sea No More is a forebitter. How to tell the difference? Well, one ‘simple clue that a song is just a song of the sea and not a sea shanty is its length and lack of a short call and response form.’ (Sharon Marie Risko, submitted as part of her Master of Music degree at Cleveland State University, August, 2015.)
There are several versions of this song, but all tell pretty much the same story. A sailor, thoroughly fed up with the life afloat, and constantly being ripped off when ashore, vows to pack it all in, but loses all his money and has to embark on another trip.
Many of the songs of this type tell of ‘crimping’, a practice in which sailors would be rendered unconscious or otherwise insensible, by drugs, drink or by being hit over the head, and their signatures forged; they would wake to find themselves on board a ship sailing to some very unpleasant place, such as the Arctic whaling grounds.
In this song, set around 1875, the sailor doesn’t need to be shanghaied by crimpers; he’s robbed of everything and left desperately destitute by a prostitute. He approaches one of the boarding house owners (most likely a crimper himself). The ship’s captain pays the boarding house owner (with whom he was likely in league) an advance on the sailor’s pay, a few months’ worth, which was ostensibly to kit out the sailor and give him a bed, but most of which would have been pocketed by the unscrupulous landlord, who graciously gives poor Jack ‘the chance to go to sea once more’.
AL (Bert) Lloyd was a singer, collector, folklorist and one of the prime movers of the Folk Revival of the second half of the twentieth century. He had also served on board a whaling ship. So, despite the efforts of a number of revisionist historians, Lloyd remains an important figure in the development of folk music in this country. Regarding this song, he said that in some versions the home port is San Francisco, rather than Liverpool, and that ‘this is more feasible since, by that time, the English whaling industry with hand harpoon and rowboat, had dried up. It was to re-start later, after the business had been revolutionized by the harpoon gun; but not till the twentieth century did Liverpool’s Bromborough Dock become important in whaling history, whereas in the 1870s a large number of vessels were sailing out of San Francisco bound for the bowhead whaling grounds of the Bering Sea, a trip repugnant to most seamen unless hard-pushed’ (in Folk Song in England, 1967). On the other hand, why let the facts get in the way of a good story?
Incidentally, I met (possibly too strong a word) Bert Lloyd in 1977. Ian and I went to Eltham Folk Club to do a floor spot. We were quite green, and my nervousness manifested itself in a slightly strange way. We were introduced as ‘Ian and Gordon’, which we were both aware sounded somewhat dorky. As I came onto the stage and turned to the mic I suddenly found myself speaking in tongues.
I said, “Hello, we’re Ian and Gordon, otherwise known as Johnny Deplorable and the Nosebleeds.” Mr Lloyd must have been about seventy at the time, and although we were nervous about playing in front of one of the major figures in the world of traditional music, we played very well.
When Mr Lloyd came back on after us (we played during his break), he said, “I love those mandolins.” That was a lovely thing to say, and it gave me a warm glow. I’m sure it gave Ian one too, although I didn’t actually check. Actually, it’s just occurred to me, writing this, that Bert may have been commenting on our instruments rather than our playing. No, he must have meant us. Surely.