Uncle Bill Teller
DESCRIPTION: "Uncle Bill Teller died las' fall, Young maiden, where ye bound to? We jigged t'ree days an' niver got one, Across de Western Ocean." "Bill K is de divil fer fat, Hang to 'er, b'ys, hang to 'er." "Billy K. got a fine old bark."
EARLIEST DATE: 1924 (England, Vikings of the Ice)
KEYWORDS: hunting derivative
REFERENCES (2 citations):
Ryan/Small, p. 106, "Uncle Bill Teller" (1 text)
ADDITIONAL: 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, p. 129, "(no title)" (1 text)
cf. "Across the Western Ocean" (form, lyrics)
NOTES [438 words]: Evidently a sealing parody of "Across the Western Ocean."
The notes to Ryan/Small give no hint as to what this is about, and my references don't offer any mention of a "William Teller." Is he the same as "Billy K."? And if so, is the name William Teller K[...]," or is it "William K. Teller"?
I can't say who Bill Teller might be, but I think I know who "Billy K" is. Chafe, p. 97, has a list of all men who commanded sealing steamers. There are four captains named William K: William Kean, William Knee, William Knight, and William Kent. But we are told that "Billy K. is de divil for fat." In other words, he was a successful sealer. This eliminates Kent at least; he led only one sealing trip, which was a flop, taking only 2759 seals.
William Kean did better; he had three trips, averaging 10899 seals per year, in 1863 and 1874-1875 (Chafe, p. 92) -- plus he was a member of the famous Kean family, for which see "Captain Abram Kean"; they later became very well-known indeed.
William Knight had more years as a steamer captain than Kent or Kean -- six (1870-1875; Chafe, p. 92) -- but averaged only 7709 seals per trip.
Which leaves William Knee. He is listed with sixteen trips to the ice (1877-1893; Chafe, pp. 92-93), averaging 12593 seals per year. And in "The Sealer's Song (I)," he was called "Billy Knee the Jowler" -- meaning that he was a great finder of seals. And he, like William Kean, was the head of a sealing dynasty -- e.g. his son Job Knee is mentioned in "Captains and Ships" and "The Sealer's Song (II)." Surely he is the best candidate by far.
There is another faint hint of a link to Knee in this song. The third line of the first verse is "We jigged three days and never got one." This might of course be simply a reference to bad hunting; many ships had trouble finding seals. In 1883, Knee, in command of the Falcon, claimed he found seals early -- but that many of them were stolen (along with his ship's bunting), forcing him to spend more time on the ice to gain a full load of seals (Ryan, pp. 170-171).
Knee also probably had a good reputation among sealers. Many sealing captains would do nothing to help other ships, especially if they belonged to other companies. Knee was different. In 1890, the Terra Nova (for which see "The Terra Nova") left hundreds of her men behind on the ice. Having little choice, they headed for Knee's Kite. The Kite was a small ship (for its story, see "The 'Kite' Abandoned in White Bay"), but Knee put out his ship's boats and started coal fires and not only kept the men alive, he eventually turned the whole thing into a party (Keir, pp. 171-172). - 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)
- Keir: David Keir, The Bowring Story, The Bodley Head, 1962
- Ryan: Shannon Ryan, The Ice Hunters: A History of Newfoundland Sealing to 1914, Breakwater Books, 1994
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.