Singer-songwriter Joe Danks may live in landlocked rural Derbyshire – about as far as it is possible to be from the English coast – but the sound and smell of the sea and the echoes of its many stories are locked firmly in his head.
Danks found his ‘sea legs’ when he landed a year-long residency at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich as part of the English Folk Dance & Song Society’s (EFDSS) ‘Musicians in Museums’ project. The result is Seaspeak – a buoyant and beautifully crafted mix of new songs, revisited traditional songs, schottisches and hornpipes– a sonic equivalent to a well-shaken Salty Dog cocktail.
Nottingham-born Danks, until recently a member of Anglo-Irish alt-folk band Ranagri, has penned a selection of new songs inspired by stories and objects exhibited at the National Maritime Museum – from model ships to Turner’s famous ‘Battle of Trafalgar’ painting, commissioned by King George IV. As well as revealing his fine vocal, multi-instrumentalist Danks plays guitar, bodhran and melodeon. He says: “I was thrilled to be selected for the residency - it was a great pleasure and privilege sourcing, writing and arranging this material. The collection at the Museum and its Caird Library is the richest stimulus imaginable for a songwriter and arranger and I was lucky to be supported by some very fine musicians on the project.”
Recorded at The Queen’s House, Greenwich, it features guest musicians Danny Pedler (Pedler/Russell) on accordion and hurdy gurdy, Sarah Matthews (Sweet Visitor Band, Cupola, Intarsia) on fiddle, viola and vocals and harpist Jean Kelly (Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments). Joe, who himself dances with Harlequin and Makeney Morris sides, also brought in the excellent Simon Harmer who contributes his distinctive step dancing on two numbers – quicksilver clogging on the lively Quadrilles and precision footwork on the robust Dorsetshire Hornpipe set, which includes two tunes Danks found through the box playing of Bob Cann and collecting of Keith Summers (Uncle George’s and Tommy Roberts’)
With a cover decorated with Megan Evans’ sketches inspired by the 10 tracks, the album opens with the impactful Sea Fever which skilfully melds two poems from John Masefield’s much-loved Salt-water Poems and Ballads – Sea Fever and Roadways – the former with the famous line “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky / And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by”. Marking the role of the sea through history the album includes songs about the Battle of Jutland and HMS Rawalpindi alongside the more unusual Jumbo. Based on Leon Rosselson’s ‘Jumbo the Elephant’ the song tells the sad tale of the London Zoo elephant shipped in extraordinary circumstances to Barnum’s Circus in New York in 1882 after waiting on Millwall Dock overnight – thousands of people came to protest at his leaving.
The music and vocal is arresting and agitated in the mournful ‘protest song’ which builds to a frenetic ‘all hands on deck’ finale with The Matthew Scott Schottische, a tune Sarah wrote, dedicated to Jumbo’s long-suffering keeper. Danks’ distinctive voice shines on Hussey’s John Peel – inspired by a banjo at the Maritime Museum. Belonging to meteorologist Leonard Hussey it travelled with him on a number of Shackleton expeditions providing ‘vital mental medicine’ and is covered in signatures from crew mates. Although a traditional hunting song, John Peel was reportedly played on board by Hussey accompanied by the ship’s surgeon imitating the trombone!
Keeping with the Shackleton theme, the song Southward tells the story of the steam yacht SY Morning. The amazing acoustic of the 17th century Queen’s House stairwell (part of the Maritime Museum) is heard to haunting effect as Danks sings acapella. SY Morning was a relief vessel to Scott’s British National Antarctic Expedition and this number comes from The Songs of the Morning collection–songs written during its voyages between 1902-4. The words were penned by Chief Engineer John Donald Morrison and put to music by the ship’s captain Gerald Doorly. Widely regarded as the first music to be published from Antarctica, The Songs of the Morning also contains songs co-written by Shackleton.
Gentle guitar and a beautiful fiddle refrain embroider Jutland 1916 – Danks’ song about one of the lesser known casualties of the Battle of Jutland – London laundry boy John Blackwell. Says Joe: “I was taken with the anonymity of many of the serviceman who lost their lives, particularly in the Great War, and wanted to connect with one individual’s story.”
A model of HMS Rawalpindi stands on the ground floor of The National Maritime Museum and this inspired another original song 308. The title reflects the number of crew on board the warship which sank in 1939 following a German attack. Danks’ song is based on the story of Royston Alfred Leadbetter, a merchant seaman who somehow managed to find his younger brother Jack as the ship went down – but returning with a lifejacket found him gone and never saw him again. Mixed tempos accentuate the song - Danks’ clear, calm narrative punctuated with driving, urgent rhythms as the tale unfolds. The story was told as part of the BBC’s ‘People’s War’ project. www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/60/a1984160.shtml
The evocative drone of the hurdy gurdy opens possibly the best known song on the album – the traditional Man Of War. Linked to the famous Turner painting of The Battle of Trafalgar at the National Maritime Museum, it grows from a lone vocal into a measured, full ensemble foray-delicate harp and fiddle weaving in. The album anchors with Danks’ gentle, stripped-back version of Ewan MacColl’s Sweet Thames Flows Softly celebrating the Maritime Museum’s close connection to the famous river – his clear vocal accompanied only by Kelly’s subtle harp.
To be released on July 9, Seaspeak is a wholly impressive first album outing for Danks as he plots his course and sets out on his own personal musical voyage. The album was supported by EFDSS, The National Maritime Museum and Help Musicians UK.
Photo Credits: (1)-(2) Joe Danks, (3) Ranagri, (4) J. M. W. Turner: The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805; oil on canvas (1822-1824), National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London (unknown/website).