Culture  /  Q&A

There’s No Such Thing as “Just a Song”

What we can learn from the history of maritime folk music.

As a graduate student, your scholarship focused on Marxism and maritime music. What was the connection?

I wanted to do something with folk music and the “plain” people. I was also called to the idea that everything in nature is beautiful, and working in nature creates a body of music. The songs of dock workers, the songs of cowboys, even the songs of coal miners—they’re working in nature, too. They’re underground in the Earth. Doing this kind of labor creates a particular kind of music. 

But that connection with Marxism didn’t quite pan out, did it?

The 1840s were a decade of labor radicalism; Europe had 17 revolutions in 1848. They were revolutions of the left against the established power of foreign occupiers, dukes, kings. My great-great-grandfather fought in the 1847 revolution in Germany and when he failed, he fled to New York. This is when Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto. It was the time of Seneca Falls and the women’s movement. Things were happening. 

I wanted to see if that kind of class consciousness existed among nautical workers or whalers. So I went to read 80 journals that were written by whaling hands, cabin boys, and ship’s carpenters. These were the guys writing, not the captain. I wanted to show that the seamen in the whale fishery—at least those from eastern Long Island— had a radical sense of class consciousness developing in the 1840s. I thought I would show this through songs.

What I discovered is that none of these songs have a clear sense of class consciousness. There is conflict, but it’s not phrased in terms of class. Even in songs in which they had a poor person, it was describing one poor man in opposition to a single rich man. The stories in the songs weren’t phrased in terms of unified class consciousness. What I found instead is that they presented sailors in terms of their manhood.

In my thesis, I argued that there were several different types of masculinity represented in song. Seamen—by which I mean the hands, not the officers—were very different one from another. I wrote of them as “bourgeois aspirants,” who sought to earn money toward personal financial and status advancement; “secular libertines,” the stereotypical drunken, brawling, whoring sailor; and Evangelical Christians who, in the mid-1800s, were very much involved with social reform movements. They were the “liberals” of the day.