Peter Dawson - Full Sail: Songs of the Sea

Born to Scottish parents in 1882, Australian Peter Dawson could well be described as the father of the record industry. He was in the studio a year before Caruso and made his last commercial recordings the same year that Elvis Presley came on the scene. Between 1904 and 1955 he paralleled the improved recording techniques. From two minute wax cylinders shouted into a trumpet while he perched under a jacked-up piano, to stereo recordings with a full symphony orchestra, his voice is unmistakable – rich, warm and with perfect diction.

For the last twenty years of his life, Peter Dawson returned home to Australia, still making frequent trips to London to record the ballads which had made him loved throughout the world. He died in Sydney in September 1961, just three months short of his eightieth birthday.

Stanford is the best represented composer here, with a complete performance of his cycle Songs of the Sea and one song from its sequel Songs of the Fleet. All six songs are settings of poems by Sir Henry Newbolt, who combined a career as a lawyer with that of a poet with a real feel for, and love of, the sea.

All the songs on this recording deal with facets of life at sea. Some take a lyrical and starry-eyed view, A Sea Call is pure poetry and imagination, Full Sail more proud and aggressive. Wilfred Sanderson’s The Glory Of The Sea is a parent’s tribute to a son lost at sea while fighting for England’s honour, whereas We Saw The Sea reflects the sailor’s viewpoint. Irving Berlin was born only ten years after Sanderson, but their viewpoints are completely different.

Montague Phillips’s rousing tribute to The Fishermen Of England makes it clear that fishing was dangerous, laborious and hard. Trade was the backbone of the Empire’s economy and Cargoes catalogues the exotic imports brought back by the merchantmen: ivory, apes, peacocks, sandlewood, wine, precious jewels and gold – and then compares their rich holds with the cargoes of the dirty British coasters going from Newcastle to London: Tyne cola, pig lead, firewood and cheap tin trays. Sir Edward German got under the skin of one of those wharfies who wished he was Rolling Down To Rio. With imports went import-duty, excise duty and mooring charges. The Smugglers silently disembarked with their silk and tobacco while watchers along the foreshore kept a look out for King George’s excisemen.

Other watchers were the lighthouse keepers whose lanterns and bells warned seafarers of dangerous rocks and reefs. Asleep In The Deep is a marvellously melodramatic barn-stormer complete with wind and thunder machines drowning out the opening music. And it was not just the elements that were lethal; pirates, buccaneers or battle could kill a sailor just as easily!

Many of the songs here sing the praises of Britain’s naval heroes. Sir Francis Drake (c.1540-1596) is the subject of three, Drake’s DrumDevon O Devon and Drake Goes West. All of them concentrate on his victory over the Spanish Armada. Like many another sailor he was a victim of the many sicknesses that came with prolonged time at sea. He died of dysentry off the coast of Porto Bello on 28th January 1596, and his body committed to the deep.

Admiral Robert Blake (1599-1657) is the hero of The Admiral’s Broom. During the English Civil War the struggle with the Dutch for supremacy of seas began in earnest in 1652. The Dutch Commander, Admiral van Tromp, boasted that he would tie a broom to his main mast as a symbol that he would sweep the sea free of the English. Blake retorted that he would whip the Dutch, and strapped a heavy whip to his mast. Between 19th May 1652 to 31st July 1683, Blake shattered Holland’s navy in a series of lightning engagements. He died at sea in 1657.

Captain Henry Morgan (1635-1688) was a more rough and ready character. The song Captain Harry Morgan describes fairly accurately the burning of Panama and the looting and mayhem of his piratical swashbucklers. The king of the pirates achieved respectability in middle-age, and at his death in 1688 was Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica.

Viscount Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) is represented by two songs, both from poems by Sir Henry Newbolt. The Little Admiral claims that Nelson’s value to Britain was equal to thirty cruisers or battleships – as it may well have been. One of the stragglers in Nelson’s fleet was an old elderly tub, the Superb, commanded by Captain Keats. The Old Superb tells how the slow, leaking ship still made Cape Trafalgar in October 1805. Nelson was killed during the battle, his body pickled in brandy and brought back to London for a hero’s funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral.

All of the songs in this collection have a common theme – the sea is master, and sailors fail to respect it at their peril. From florid expositions of Britain’s naval might, as in Three Cheers, For The Red White And Blue to gentle, introspective poems like Homeward Bound, the power and force of the sea is implicit. But whatever tempests or storms may threaten, the pull of the sea is eternal. For years to come, the fishermen of England will still go down to the sea in ships, and land-bound writers will celebrate them in song. Let us hope that there will be singers of the quailty of Peter Dawson to do justice to them.