Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

183 : An English folksong and its black contributor, 1880s

The sea shanty (or chanty) ‘Bound for South Australia’ is a rousing song and I often heard it in folk clubs in my area. It seemed to be a work song, with an emphatic ‘heave away, haul away’ section which strongly suggested sailors working together at a capstan to haul ropes to raise sails. One of the lines has puzzled me: that the ship was going ’round Cape Horn’ — for there are extremely strong winds at Cape Horn and the direction of airflow across the southern Pacific is from the west, which I presumed was why sailing ships travelling from Europe to Australia went via Cape Town and eastwards across the Indian Ocean.

The daughter of the Imperial Russian consul in the English port of Newcastle upon Tyne was Laura Alexandrine Smith, and she was interested in the songs that sailors sang, gathering them in a 360 page book¬†The Music of the Waters. A Collection of the Sailors’ Chanties, or Working Songs of the Sea, of all Maritime Nations which was published in London in 1888. Some had been noted by others earlier, including what became the well-known ‘Blow the Man Down’. On page 49 she wrote of ‘South Australia’ ‘I give the melody as I got it from a coloured seaman at the “Home,” together with a verbatim copy of his verses’. Those verses make no mention of Cape Horn.

A quick search on line revealed that ‘Bound for South Australia’ has been recorded many times, and has been claimed as an Irish song, and from Cornwall: and Australia.

The words noted by Laura Smith are nothing like the modern versions of the song, thus her book has:

South Australia is my native home

Heave away! Heave away!

….. I am bound to South Australia.

The 1950s and later recordings have:

In South Australia I was born
(To me) heave away, haul away
In South Australia round Cape Horn
We’re bound for South Australia
Haul away you rolling kings
To me heave away, haul away
Haul away, you’ll hear me sing
We’re bound for South Australia

As I walked out one morning fair
‘Twas there I met Miss Nancy Blair

And as we wallop around Cape Horn
You’ll wish to God you’d never been born

In South Australia my native land
Full of rocks and thieves and fleas and sand

The coloured sailor’s version names Liza Lee, does not mention Cape Horn and seems to be a different melodic line. We are seeing how folk songs change – but why 20th century recordings suggest a link to the fellow in the sailors’ home is mysterious.¬†Recorded performances have been by the reputable Pogues and the Seekers, and London-born singer-researcher A. L. Lloyd (who lived in Australia in the 1920s). Lloyd recorded it with famed folk singer Ewan MacColl in 1957, and as a solo in 1958.

Further confusion comes from the American song ‘River Shenandore’ which Miss Smith states (page 51) was ‘of negro origin’. Known as ‘Oh Shanandoah’ and regarded as focussed on the river of that name, this has been recorded by many including Bob Dylan, Robeson, Seeger and Van Morrison.

Perhaps we are seeing a historical reluctance to identify American folk music with Americans of African descent?