“It’s My Own Damn Fault; or Is It?” Alcohol and the Assignment of Blame in Mid-19th-Century Maritime Songs and Poems

Saturday, January 4, 2020: 10:50 AM
Concourse H (New York Hilton)
Stephen N. Sanfilippo, Maine Maritime Academy
Many nineteenth century seamen’s songs praise consumption of alcohol. Naval victory ballads often end with a toast by the victors, and sometimes include the sharing of liquor with the vanquished. Jack-Back-in-Port ditties also sing the praise of alcohol. This paper will give only passing attention to such songs. Instead, attention will be given to those seamen’s songs, and temperance reformers’ poems, in which alcohol consumption leads to disaster. Such songs and poems always involve the placing of blame. This placement is often not what might be expected, and is frequently complex and illusive. In seamen’s songs it involves concepts of masculinity, masculine fellowship, women as objects and as manipulators, persons of rank as exploiters, and the rejection of any or acceptance of all responsibility. Temperance poems are also complex. Although sometimes clearly “Christian,” they sometimes involve appeals to the “masculinity” of self-control and personal achievement, to the “feminine” safety of home, and to the manly calling of seamanship.

Sources for this paper will include several published collections of songs documents as being sung by seamen of the nineteenth century, including Stan Hugill’s Shanties from the Seven Seas, Gale Huntington’s Songs the Whalemen Sang, William Main Doerflinger’s Songs of the Sailor and Lumberman, and Roy Palmer’s Oxford Book of Sea Songs. Temperance poetry and songs will be as found in mid-nineteenth century editions of The Friend of Temperance and the Seaman, published by the Christian mission at Honolulu, and other Christian tracts aimed at seamen. Use will also be made of the nearly 100 songs found in journals of 1840s whalemen out of Sag Harbor and Greenport, New York.