Author: Poling, Chuck

Shiver Me Timbers!

This past Saturday Jeanie and I checked out the Sea Music Festival at San Francisco’s Hyde Street Pier. While there wasn’t any bluegrass music, there was plenty of traditional, acoustic music, along workshops, living history demonstrations, and a bunch of people in various seaworthy costumes. A couple of stages were set up on the pier and there were also performances on the historic ships that are moored at the site.

While we were listening to the music, we watched hundreds of ships darting around the bay. The America’s Cup World Series has begun and it seemed that every sailor in Northern California had turned out to greet the big racing catamarans. Seagulls squawked, sea lions barked, and the old ships creaked in their berths.

Though a lifelong landlubber, I’m intrigued by the call of the sea, its history and traditions. While musing on the lore of the oceans I came across a little-known tale of one of the great Sea Dogs of all time and his connection to the origins of bluegrass music. Indulge me, dear readers, while I tell you a tale, a tale of fateful trip…

As many of you know, Sir Francis Drake commanding the Golden Hind made a stop in Marin County. That’s why there’s a Drake’s Bay and a Sir Francis Drake Drive and all that other Drakey stuff up there. While it’s true that Magellan’s fleet accomplished the first recorded trip around the world some 60 years earlier, the Spaniard committed two public relations blunders: not stopping in Marin for a caffe latte and not making it back alive to Spain with the remnants of his fleet. Drake, however, was a little more savvy, and upon his return to England, he was on the talk-show circuit in no time.

Drake has been variously described as an admiral, an explorer, and a privateer or pirate. He was really all of the above, but we like to focus on his career as a buccaneer because (1) that’s really what he was, and (2) pirates are cool. And Drake was an exceptionally cool pirate in that he was able to parlay his thieving activities into an admiralship in Her Majesty’s Navy. Privateering is basically piracy with a note from your Mom saying it’s OK.

The voyage around the globe took more than four years, and even the hardiest old salt required some entertainment to pass the time as the ship rolled through the endless seas. The recent discovery of a crew member’s diary has led to startling new evidence into the origins of bluegrass music.

May 8, 1579

At three belles, the crewe was given to taketh leisure and sot any and all dyversions from their tedious labours. Forthwith, several men did produce instrumentes of musikale nature for our pleasures. These included a recently captured Spanish geetar, a lute with a most womanish shape that, I confesse, did lead me to think of less of musik and more of matters best left unsaide. Also, a crewe member born of Italian stock did make musik upon a smaller lute-like instrumente, he called a Mandoline. It did not seem an especially manly thing, but certainly its shape was not womanish, for which I was thankfulle.

These two fellowes did strum upon their strings and with their voices did hit notes higher than the main topgallant sail. “Oh Where is my Sailore Boye,” they did intone, and they also sang “Darling Nellie Across the Sea.” Both songes found favour with the crewe and they made forth with thunderous applause, augmented by a broadside fyred at the conclusion of songe. Sir Francis was not amused by the waste of powder and shot. All were flogged.

July 16, 1579

Our musikale troupe has been augmented by two new crewe members. A Scottish fiddler hath taken to confederacy with said players of geetar and mandoline. Together this combination maketh musik most pleasing to the ear. The fiddler brought along his clansmen who playeth a titanic cousine of the fiddle which brings forth low, rumbling tones and percussive thumping that causeth the feet of the men to tap up and downe and to and fro. Soon the crewe formed into squares and Sir Francis himself did direct our movements in connivance with the musik. “Circle starboard and bow to your port partner.”

Also, the titanic fiddle was fitted with oars and serveth as a ship’s boat.

February 24, 1580

Since our long ago departure from the shores of Africa, all have been mystifyed by an object we acquired there, It is knowne in those partes as a “banjar” and it is only now, months later, that we have divined its intended purpose as a musikale device. Prior to this discovery it had been used in the shippe’s galley to cooke our foode and was found to be wanting in this respect. It was also employed as an oar on the titanic fiddle-boat.

But when rigged with stringes of gutte, it was found to produce strange and wonderful soundes, though there are those of the crewe who have shown no fondness for its tones and a great a controversie has arisen over its presence. “Keel haul the damnable thing,” cry some, while others do beseech the Captaine for his indulgence in allowing the crewe this meager dyversion. “Good Sir Francis,” they enjoined him, “let us not throw the banjar out with the bilgewater.”

But reason did prevayle, and it was agreed that if the musik could continue if played between the Dog Watch and eight bells. This harmonious (verily, there is no intention of “punne”) situation continued peacefully throughout the remainder of our voyage.

April 4, 1581

Upon our return to Portsmouth, Sir Francis did bring said musicians to our dread sovereign Elizabeth for the purpose of making merry and amusing our beloved Queen. Her Majesty seemed quite taken with the performance and favored the musicians with a royal nod. But alas, ill fortune arrived in the form of a brazier brought into the room to provide warmth. The heat did cause the gutte stringes about the banjar to slacken and make a most unseemly sounde, which did cause our most gracious Queen to take offence.

But our Queen showed herself to be most merciful and puissant in commuting the sentence from hanging, drawing and quartering to banishment to far reaches of Her Majesty’s colonies in the New World. Not wanting to befoul the land of “Virginia,” the luckless band was sent to a province further inland, known as Kain-tu-kee by the local inhabitants. Nothing was ever heard of them or their musik again.

Posted:  8/27/2012

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