Folk song favourites: the Ellan Vannin Tragedy
My wife doesn’t much care for my taste in music. Only last week she berated my choice of lunchtime listening, asking why we couldn’t have “something normal, instead of that weird, wailing rubbish you like so much.” I protested, putting up a spirited defence of my preferred genre, only to be told that as well as its questionable musicality, folk has an image problem, being dominated by “screeching women in swirly, diaphanous dresses and bearded men in sandals.”
Huh, methinks the lady doth protest too much! Mrs P has accompanied me to – and enjoyed – various folk gigs in recent years, and at no point have we seen a sandal or anything even remotely diaphanous. Plenty of beards, though.
For me, one of the attractions of folk songs is their powerful narrative drive. Folk songs tell stories. Before the oral tradition was supplanted by near-universal literacy, song was one of the main ways in which ordinary people communicated with one another over space and time about their hopes, fears and beliefs, about the challenges of their daily lives, about major events that helped shape their existence, and about the endless cycle of the seasons. Although illiteracy is largely a thing of the past in the UK, contemporary folk music maintains the storytelling tradition.
I first came across the Ellan Vannin Tragedy in the late 1960s, sung on television by The Spinners – a popular Liverpool folk band of the day – and rediscovered it during our 2018 visit to the Isle of Man.
The song tells the story of the sinking of the S.S. Ellan Vannin in 1909. En route from Ramsey in the Isle of Man to Liverpool, the ship ran into a violent storm as it crossed the Irish Sea, and foundered in Liverpool Bay. All 15 passengers and 21 crew died. Also lost was a consignment of mail and 60 tonnes of cargo, which included approximately 60 sheep.
Writing over half a century later Hughie Jones, one of the Spinners, poignantly captured the details of the tragedy. In this YouTube video you can hear Hughie performing his song in front of a live audience. I suspect the soundtrack’s taken from an old vinyl recording – listen to the clicks and crackles! The video is illustrated by a series of fascinating archive photos assembled by Lexi Duggan, and includes the complete lyrics.
I find the audience’s gentle singing of each chorus particularly moving and love the way this gets louder as the song progresses, reflecting the participants’ growing confidence and engagement as the sad story unfolds. For me, The Ellan Vannin Tragedy is folk at its best, tunefully telling a story which deserves to be remembered, while evoking a strong emotional response in the listener. And not a sandal or a diaphanous dress in sight!
Postscript – Ellan Vannin means “Isle of Man” in the Manx language. The ship was built in Glasgow at a cost of £10,673. She entered service with the Steam Packet Fleet in June 1860, at which point she was known as the Mona’s Isle (Mona is the first known name for the Isle of Man, recorded in Latin by Julius Caesar in 54 BCE). She was substantially rebuilt in 1883, being converted from a paddle steamer to a propeller-driven ship, and to mark her reincarnation she was renamed the Ellan Vannin. Following the tragedy on 3 December 1909, no other ship in the Steam Packet Fleet has borne the name.
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Links to other posts featuring a favourite folk song
- The Seasons, performed by Jimmy Aldridge and Sid Goldsmith, featured in Liebster Award, Part 2
- The Chemical Workers Song, performances by (1) Ron Angel, (2) Great Big Sea, and (3) Jimmy Aldridge and Sid Goldsmith, all featured in Movies and Music Lift the Lid on Chemical Pollution
- The King of Rome, performances by (1) June Tabor, (2) Lucy Ward, and (3) Dave Sudbury, all featured in The King of Rome and Superfluous Penguins
- The Last of the Great Whales, performed by Celtic Crossroads, featured in Whale Song on my 2017 blog of a trip to Newfoundland