DESCRIPTION: This barely qualifies as a song, as there are only three notes, repeated in the same order with slight variation. There is no plot; the depth of the river is taken in order to avoid running aground. "Half twain, quarter twain, mark twain."
EARLIEST DATE: 1939
KEYWORDS: river nonballad
FOUND IN: US(SE)
REFERENCES (2 citations):
Botkin-MRFolklr, p. 572, "Mississippi Sounding Call" (1 text, 1 tune)
MWheeler, pp. 59-66, "Soundings at Memphis"; "Soundings from Uncle Mac"; Soundings from Tee Collins" (3 texts, 3 tunes)
NOTES: The terminology used in these song is explained in Botkin's notes, and more fully in sources such as Wheeler.
In simplest form, the measurements are in fathoms, and additive -- so, e.g. "half twain" is "half a fathom plus two fathoms," i.e. 15 feet; "quarter twain:" "quarter fathom plus two fathoms," i.e. 13.5 feet; "mark twain": two fathoms exactly, i.e. 12 feet.
Distances less than "quarter less twain" (10.5 feet) are given in feet, and distances over a certain limit (usually Mark Four, i.e. four fathoms=24 feet) are described as "no bottom."
It should be noted that this system is specific to riverboats. Soundings at sea are very different. Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, A Seaman's Pocket Book, London, June 1943, designed for sailors newly taken into the Royal Navy in World War II; (I use the 2006 MJF Books edition), pp. 25-27, describes the sounding calls of an ocean-going Royal Navy ship. Their standard lead is 25 fathoms, with marks on the line at 2, 3, 5, 7, 10, 13, 15, 17, and 20 fathoms. If the depth is at one of these marks, the sounding will be "by the mark" followed by a number (e.g. "by the mark seven"); if it is an even fathom, then the call is "by the deep" and the number (e.g. "by the deep eight"); the call may be amplified by halves or quarters. Thus the two systems have almost no overlap -- not surprising, given that the deepest water encountered by a riverboat is shallower than almost anything in which an ocean vessel can maneuver.
The various "songs" combined under this heading are, of course, not ballads, and not even true folk tunes, nor do they constitute a single song. The tunes are simple, and almost all the words are simply the numbers for depths (though in fact the various singers had their own methods of calling the numbers -- a valuable skill if it helped keep the listeners alert). But collectively these chants represent a significant part of river culture, so I've included them. - RBW
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