Sealer's Song (I)
DESCRIPTION: "The Block House Flag is up today to welcome home the stranger." The sealing fleet is returning. The ships are named, their feats recounted [how they "kill their foe"," i.e. the seals], and they go home to parties and dancing
EARLIEST DATE: 1955 (Doyle), but written 1889-1890 (see NOTES)
KEYWORDS: bragging return hunting ship party dancing humorous
FOUND IN: Canada(Newf)
REFERENCES (7 citations):
Doyle3, pp. 52-53, "Sealer's Song" (1 text, 1 tune)
Doyle4, pp. 44-45, "Sealer's Song" (1 text, 1 tune)
Doyle5, pp. 44-45, "Sealer's Song" (1 text, 1 tune)
Blondahl, pp. 73-74, "The Sealer's Song" (1 text, 1 tune)
Ryan/Small, pp. 33-34, "Sealer's Song" (1 text, 1 tune)
Mills, pp. 40-41, "Sealer's Song" (1 text, 1 tune)
ADDITIONAL: John Feltham, _Sealing Steamers_, Harry Cuff Publications, 1995, pp. 77-78, "Sealer's Song" (partial text)
ST Doyl3052 (Partial)
cf. "The Girl I Left Behind Me" (tune)
NOTES [1039 words]: A very widely cited song, though the author is unknown.
My earlier notes on this song states, "The list of captains mentioned implies a date in the period between 1865 and 1880." I'm not sure where I found this information, but the song contains several dating hints. Just four of them allow us to set an absolute date of 1889-1890, with 1890 the better bet:
1. Verse 1, line 3 mentions "Stewart's House." According to Feltham, p. 77 n. 47, this was a sealing company that shut down in 1893. Compared to its rivals Bowring's and Job's (which lasted much longer), it was pretty small fry, with only three ships, the Walrus (for which see "First Arrival -- 'Aurora' and 'Walrus' Full"), the Proteus (which doesn't seem to have been mentioned in sealing songs), and the Ranger (for which see "First Arrival from the Sea Fishery S. S. Fogota, 1912").
2. Verse 1, line 4. There were several Captains Barbour (Alpheus Barbour, Baxter Barbour, George Barbour, Joseph Barbour, Thomas Barbour; Chafe, pp. 87-88), but because he commands the Ranger, the one in this song must be Captain Joe Barbour (also mentioned in the "Sealer's Song (II)" as captain of the Iceland), who commanded the Ranger 1882-1890 (Feltham, p. 78).
3. Verse 3, lines 3-4; also verse 5 line 1 "Billy Knee the Jowler" (i.e. a very successful captain) commanded the Kite 1889-1893 (Feltham, p. 78) as well as in 1877. Billy Knee's ship the Kite was one of the most-mentioned in sealing songs; see "The 'Kite' Abandoned in White Bay." Knee was another captain of a sealing dynasty; his brother (Kenneth) Knee is mentioned in "First Arrival from the Sea Fishery S. S. Fogota, 1912" and his son Job Knee in "The Sealer's Song (II)." William Knee certainly did take home a lot of seals; Chafe, p. 97, gives his career total as 201,493 seals over 16 years -- not record-breaking, but his yearly average of 12,593 seals appears to me to make him #27 in the list -- with very many of those who did better coming later and in better ships. Knee didn't have great success in 1890 (10,809 seals, according to Chafe, p. 59), which would make sense in light of the song's statement that they were stuck for two weeks.
Billy Knee does not seem to be mentioned explicitly in any other song, but the "Billy K." of "Uncle Bill Teller" seems like a good fit for Knee; see that song for background on Knee.
4. Captain Blandford (verse 2, line 1): There were at least four Captains Blandford (Samuel, Darius, James, and Joseph; Joe Blandford is mentioned in "Captains and Ships," and Darius Blandford in "Sealer's Song (II)"; Darius, James, and Samuel were brothers), but since we're looking at 1889-1890, it must be Captain Samuel Blandford (1840-1909), who had first gone to the ice under his father at the age of thirteen (Ryan, p. 227), and commanded the Neptune 1883-1903. In 1889, he took 28,103 seals, the second-highest total of the year. In 1890, he took 21,949 seals -- a lower total than in 1889, but in 1890, it was the best total of any ship. Support for the idea that it is Samuel comes from the fourth line of the verse, that Blandford "filled her to the hatches"; in 1884, Blandford had set a record for most seals in one trip -- which he himself broke in 1888 (Feltham, p. 94). Thus if the song was written in 1889 or 1890, Blandford was the record-holder for filling his ship. He would later serve in the Newfoundland House of Assembly (Chafe, p. 31; Ryan, p. 241, notes that several other Newfoundland sealers would also go into politics as a result of their fame), and continued to command ships through 1906, when he retired due to illness (Ryan, p. 191). See also the notes to "Neptune, Ruler of the Sea." Unlike a lot of sealing captains, some of the Blandfords were actual qualified seamen; Darius Blandford would later captain the passenger liner Bruce (Hanrahan, p. 4). There is a photo of Samuel Blandford on p. 73 of Ryan/Drake.
Thus the combination gives us a forced date of 1889-1890. Many of the other mentions accord with this date.
I'll try to take the other details of this song in order.
Verse 1, line 1: The "Block House Flag," according to Feltham, p. 77 n. 46, was raised when a sealer approached St. John's harbour, letting residents know so that they could watch the arrival.
Verse 3, line 2, "Jackman in the Howler." There were several Captains Jackman. For Captain William Jackman, see "Captain William Jackman, A Newfoundland Hero." For Arthur Jackman, see also "The Spring of '97," "First Arrival -- 'Aurora' and 'Walrus' Full," and especially "The Old Polina." But neither commanded a sealer called the Howler, because, according to Feltham, p. 78 n. 48, there was no such ship. Nor did a Captain Jackman ever command the Wolf, an obvious candidate to be nicknamed the Howler. I might wildly conjecture that Vanguard might be mis-heard as "Howler," but Jackman didn't command the Vanguard. Alternately, the Aurora was sometimes known as the Roarer (England, p. 118), and I suppose Roarer could be re-nicknamed Howler. But although Arthur Jackman commanded the Aurora 1894-1897 (Chafe, p. 92), that is after this song must have been written.
Arthur Jackman in 1889-1890 commanded the Eagle, so presumably that is the real "Howler." Possibly the name was simply made up to give a rhyme for "Jowler" (a term for a highly successful captain; Feltham, p. 78 n. 49). Ryan/Drake, p. 74, has a photo of Captain Arthur Jackman (1843-1907), who commanded sealers every year from 1871 to 1906. He had a somewhat checkered career, losing the Resolute in 1886 and the Eagle in 1892, and was once fined for violating the laws about sealing on Sundays -- but he was so tough that, when he mangled one of his fingers, he took an axe and cut it off when one of his sailors refused to do so! (Ryan, pp. 272-273 n. 23).
As for the Eagle herself (verse 7, line 4), there were two sealers named Eagle (one of them commanded for a time by Arthur Jackman). For these two ships, see the notes to "The Ice-Floes."
Verse 6, line 4: whoever "Walsh and Luke McCarthy" were, they were not ship captains; there were two Captains Walsh, Samuel and Nicolas (Chafe, pp. 95-96), but they last sailed in 1882 in the Merlin. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.3
- Chafe: Levi George Chafe, Chafe's Sealing Book: A History of the Newfoundland Sealfishery from the Earliest Available Records Down To and Including the Voyage of 1923, third edition, Trade Printers and Publishers, Ltd., 1923 (PDF scan available from Memorial University of Newfoundland)
- England: George Allan England, Vikings of the Ice: Being the Log of a Tenderfoot on the Great Newfoundland Seal Hunt (also published as The Greatest Hunt in the World), Doubleday, 1924
- Feltham: John Feltham, Sealing Steamers, Harry Cuff Publications, 1995
- Hanrahan: Maura Hanrahan, The Alphabet Fleet, Flankers Press Ltd., 2007
- Ryan: Shannon Ryan, The Ice Hunters: A History of Newfoundland Sealing to 1914, Breakwater Books, 1994
- Ryan/Drake: Shannon Ryan, assisted by Martha Drake, Seals and Sealers: A Pictorial History of the Newfoundland Seal Fishery, Breakwater Books, 1987
Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography
The Ballad Index Copyright 2018 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.