Hunting Seals

DESCRIPTION: "With knife and fork, with kettle and pan, With spoon and mug, and glasses.... For we are swoilers fearless, bold, As we copy from pan to pan, sir." The singer describes hunting seals, facing polar bears, and enticing girls with furs
AUTHOR: probably James Murphy
EARLIEST DATE: 1978 (Ryan/Small)
KEYWORDS: hunting courting animal
FOUND IN:
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Ryan/Small, p. 133, "Hunting Seals" (1 text, tune referenced)
NOTES [392 words]: There is a good bit of sealing usage in this song, some of it slightly obscure. "Lasses," in the first verse, is not young women but molasses (StoryKirwinWiddowson, p. 331, citing this piece); sealers often used molasses to sweeten their tea.
"Swoil/swile" and "Swoiler/swiler" are dialect for "seal" and "sealer," respectively.
A pan is a sheet of flat ice; sealers who were away from their ships often gathered seal pelts into pans for later recovery (StoryKirwinWiddowson,p. 367). The pelts themselves are the skins with the fat still attached (StoryKirwinWiddowson, p. 373; for most of the time Newfoundlanders hunted seals, the fat, which could be made into a fine oil, was the part of the seal most sought after). A panning staff, or pan flag, was a marker to say which ship the seals in a pan belonged to -- although not every sealing captain could be trusted to respect another ship's flags.
Bats and gaffs are tools for killing seals and managing the ice.
Frosters were cleats on a boot (or a horse's hoof) to prevent sliding on ice (StoryKirwinWiddowson, p. 204).
In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the sealers usually left St. John's on March 10; they were supposed to start sealing on or around St. Patrick's Day.
"Harps" are harp seals, the main target of the hunt, which were easy to fight; "hoods" were hooded seals, the other Newfoundland species, and they were indeed "the devil for fighting"; much heavier than a man, they would defend themselves and their young, as the harps would not. A "dog harp" is a male harp; "dog" was a term for a male animal (StoryKirwinWiddowson, p. 144).
A "white coat" or "whitecoat" is a baby harp seal, the primary object of the hunt, because they had lots of fat and made no attempt whatsoever to fight or flee (the fact that they were cute, helpless, intelligent, and endangered rarely entered a sealer's mind).
Bedlamers are second year seals, not yet fully mature but able to care for themselves -- sort of the seal equivalent of teenagers. The title is a description of age; a bedlamer may be either a "harp" or a "hood." The origin of the name is uncertain; some connect it with "bedlam," because they create bedlam, others with French "bete de la mer," "beast of the sea" (Young, p. 33; StoryKirwinWiddowson, p. 37, prefer the "bedlam" sense, and first cite the term from 1766). - RBW
Bibliography Last updated in version 4.3
File: RySm133

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.