A Yarn of ‘A Nautical Yarn’

June 20th, 2020 | 'Banjo' Paterson, Henry Lawson, Maritime history, Music, Songs

A Yarn of ‘A Nautical Yarn’

‘A Nautical Yarn’ is one of the nine Australian folk songs that American singer Burl Ives recorded in 1952, and which were to have such a profound effect on Australians’ perception of their own folk music heritage. The ‘yarn’ takes place on the Murray River. (Whether the adjective ‘nautical’ can be applied in the context of fresh water is arguable.) The words are credited to Keighley Goodchild. They are a play on the general notion of shipwrecks, so many of which occurred, and so tragically, in the 19th century. A paddle steamer is making its way upstream to the town of Wahgunyah (the furthest upstream port on the Murray) when a storm arises during the night. The crew fear for their lives, but the boat is grounded on a sandbar, and they all walk safely through the shallow water to shore!

According to his obituary, which was published in The Riverine Herald in 1888, Goodchild was born in London, and had a good education. He had arrived in Melbourne fifteen years earlier (1873) from New Zealand. How long he had been in New Zealand is not stated.

The Echuca Historical Society also has information about Goodchild’s life. He was born in 1851. (By way of historical comparison, Henry Lawson was born in 1867, and Ned Kelly in 1855.) Goodchild was very much a newspaperman. In Melbourne he worked for the Argus. He moved to Echuca in 1880, and stayed there until his death at the age of only 37 of ‘consumption’ (TB) in 1988. He worked for a number of newspapers, and was editor of the Echuca Advertiser. For the last two years of his life he worked as a compositor for The Riverine Herald. (It was the job of a compositor to arrange type for printing.) He also published a column under the title ‘Municipal Musings’. (Many of these can be easily accessed via Trove.)

Goodchild also wrote poetry, and in 1883 he self published a small collection of his own work with the title ‘Who Are You? : A Volume of Verse’. One of the poems in this book, ‘While the Billy Boils’, was included in the final volume of a series of poetry collections published in London. The series was titled ‘Canterbury Poets’, and the final volume, with Goodchild’s poem, ‘Australian Ballads and Rhymes: Poems inspired by Life and Scenery in Australia and New Zealand’ (1888), was edited by B. W. Sladen of Oxford. (Goodchild received his copy several days before he died.) The phrase, ‘while the billy boils’, was just beginning to gain traction in Australia and New Zealand, and this was not the first time it was used. It was also chosen as the title of Henry Lawson’s first collection of short stories, published in 1896. Lawson did not use the phrase himself, but his editor, Arthur Jose, felt it was apt. (Jose almost certainly knew of Goodchild’s poem.) Plans were afoot for a second collection of Goodchild’s verse to be published in London, but this did not eventuate, no doubt due to his premature demise.

Here is the first stanza of ‘While the Billy Boils’ by Keighley Goodchild.

While the ruby coals in the dull grey dust,
Shine bright as the daylight dies;
When into our mouths our pipes are thrust,
And we watch the moon arise;
While the leaves that crackle and hiss and sigh
Feed the flame with their scented oils,
In a calm content by the fire we lie
And watch while the billy boils.

‘A Nautical Yarn’ is included in the blog ‘An Australian Folk Song A Day’, by John Thompson. John references the source of the song as ‘Big Book of Australian Folk Songs’ by Ron Edwards, and adds this note from the book:

“…Ian Mudie in his book ‘Riverboats’ suggests that “it is so different from the rest of Goodchild’s work that it seems quite likely he heard it on the riverboats or in the pubs of Echuca – and wrote it down as his own.”

So perhaps Keighley Goodchild did not write ‘A Nautical Yarn’ after all!

To further complicate matters, there is more than one tune for the song. Goodchild’s stated tune was ‘The Dreadnought’, but Burl Ives’ folio of Australian songs used ‘Villikins and his Dinah’.

Who knows, perhaps Goodchild would have developed into a writer to rival Lawson and Paterson if he had lived longer? Then again, that can no doubt be said about a number of writers whose lives were cut short in those hard, early days.

A Nautical Yarn

I sing of a capting who’s well known to fame;
A naval commander, Bill Jinks is his name.
Who sailed where the Murray’s clear waters do flow,
Did this freshwater shellback, with his Yeo heave a yeo.

To the Port of Wahgunyah his wessel was bound
When night comes upon him and darkness around;
Not a star on the waters it clear light did throw;
But the wessel sped onward with a Yeo heave a yeo.

Oh, Capting, oh! Capting, let’s make for the shore,
For the winds they do rage and the winds they do roar!”
“Nay, nay,” said the capting, “though the fierce winds may blow
I will stick to my vessel with a Yeo heave a yeo.”

“Oh! Capting, oh! Capting, the waves sweep the deck,
Oh Capting, oh! Capting, we’ll soon be a wreck –
To the river’s deep bosom each seaman will go!
But the capting laughed loudly, with his Yeo heave a yeo.

“Farewell to the maiding – the girl I adore;
Farewell to my friends – I shall see them no more!”
The crew shrieked in terror, the capting he swore –
They had stuck on a sandbank, so the men walked ashore.

© Stephen Whiteside 13.06.2020

Paddle steamer ‘Adelaide’

(State Library of South Australia, PRG 1258/1/12)

References
Keighley J. Goodchild (The Riverine Herald, Friday 6 April, 1888, page 2)
(https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/114660028/12107908)

Keighley Goodchild

https://www.austlit.edu.au/austlit/page/A9270?mainTabTemplate=agentWorksBy

‘Biography of a Book – Henry Lawson’s While the Billy Boils’ by Paul Eggert (Sydney University Press 2013, pages 150 – 1)

http://ozfolksongaday.blogspot.com/2011/11/nautical-yarn.html

The Poor Ketch ‘Coquette’

February 7th, 2019 | Maritime history, Sailing, Songs, Stories for adults

I have always loved the idea of taking interesting events from Australia’s maritime history and shaping them into poems or song lyrics for contemporary audiences. Stan Rogers, the Canadian singer songwriter, is the master of this, with songs such as ‘The Mary Ellen Carter’ and ‘Barrett’s Privateers’. I can’t really think of an Australian equivalent. We have plenty of songs about shearers and drovers, but we have never mythologised our maritime history, rich as it is.

Since becoming friends with Maggie Somerville and staying at her house in Foster, I have begun to reacquaint myself with the history of South Gippsland, much of which is, of course, maritime.

It is tempting to simply write about shipwrecks, but that seems such a cheap way of approaching the subject – of course they are going to be tragic, and there is no shortage of them to choose from.

That is why the story of the ketch ‘Coquette’ struck my fancy. I first heard of the ‘Coquette’ in a book entitled ‘They Fished in Wooden Boats – A History of Port Franklin District and the Fishing Families’, by Neil Everitt, which I found in the Visitors’ Information Centre at Wilsons Prom several years ago. Pages 22 – 23 are devoted to the story of the landing of gold prospectors by boats and ships at Stockyard Creek to take them to the diggings. (Stockyard Creek was also an early name for Foster.) A number of vessels are referred to, including the ’41-ton ketch Coquette.’ I decided to see if ‘Trove’ could tell me anything about the ‘Coquette.’

Turned out it most definitely could. Yes, the ‘Coquette’ sank, but nobody was killed, and the events both preceding and following are interesting and, thanks to Trove, readily accessible in considerable detail. Of further appeal to me was that the ‘Coquette’ sank in Waratah Bay, a part of the coastline that Maggie has especially taken to heart. (She even wrote a song about it!)

The first article, published in Sydney in the Australian Town and Country Journal on Saturday 12 November 1892, tells us that the four masted ship ‘Drumblair’ has become stranded on the sand in Waratah Bay on the way from Sydney to Port Pirie in South Australia.

The second article, published in Melbourne in The Argus on Friday 23 December 1892, tells us that the Drumblair was winched off the sand with the help of anchors that were left behind, and are obviously very valuable. The ketch ‘Coquette’ has been sent from Melbourne to retrieve the anchors and related gear (presumably pulleys and ropes/cables). An anchor is successfully winched out of the sea but, unfortunately, it smashes against the bow of the ‘Coquette’, and causes sufficient damage to the hull that the ‘Coquette’ sinks within ten minutes, in about eight fathoms (48 feet) of water. The crew take to a dinghy, arrive safely on shore, and return to Melbourne overland.

The third and final article, published in the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate on Wednesday 22 Feb 1893, tells us that a steamer, ‘Albatross’, has been despatched from Melbourne to raise the ‘Coquette’. Alas, the attempt was unsuccessful. All the hawsers broke before she could be brought to the surface. The ketch was ‘only slewed around’, and has been ‘abandoned to her fate.’

What was her fate? Was the ‘Coquette’ ever raised from the sea floor? Did she simply disintegrate on the seabed? Do traces of her remain? I have been unable to answer any of these questions.

Meanwhile, here is the song lyric I pieced together from these three articles.

The Poor Ketch ‘Coquette’

Chorus
For the poor ketch ‘Coquette’
The saddest fate yet –
It’s sunk beneath Waratah Bay.
We all have high hopes
We can lift her with ropes.
Alas, it will not be today,
No,
Alas it will not be today.

Verse 1
Through storm she sailed, but did not veer
From her task, to bring back gear
And anchors from the rescue mission grand
For that four-masted ship ‘Dumblair’
Which slowly dragged it, with great care,
From where it lay so helpless on the sand.

Verse 2
Alas, an anchor, swinging high
Beneath her bow went all awry.
It struck her stem, and wrenched it from its planks.
Amid the tumult and the din
The ocean quickly rushed right in.
She sank, but none were drowned – a cause for thanks.

Verse 3
The steamer ‘Albatross’ then sailed
Where others had so often failed
To raise the ketch ‘Coquette’ from where it sat.
It could not lift her from the ground,
But simply slew the ship around
And that it seems, at least for now, is that.

© Stephen Whiteside 02.02.2019

I am sure Stan Rogers could have created something far more entertaining and engaging, but I guess it is still better than nothing!