Crossing the Line – Bob Watson

Thanks very much for the CD Crossing the Line, which arrived from Somerset a few days ago.

Very interesting and enjoyable I found it too. Great singing and a fine selection of songs, many of which I’d never heard before… or certainly not in the form that they appeared in on your recording. SOUTH AUSTRALIA for instance — as you say fundamentally very different from the “standard” versions you’d hear today, which tended to form the basis of my own version on the YouTube video of a guest appearance at Auckland Folk Fest in January 2008, on stage with Rudy Sunde’s Maritime Crew.

One song I had heard before was of course MOLLYMAUK, and here I must thank Tom and 40°S for the rendition which was well in line with the song as I wrote it (not always been the case) and at the same time very evocative and atmospheric. Truly a version I could always point to as an illustration of how the song needs to be sung and presented.

It was also most interesting to hear several Harry Robertson songs together in the same place, and to be reminded just how good Harry was as a writer. Your own WHALING WIFE (and also NANTUCKET GIRLS’ SONG) were especially enjoyable as well, as were ROSE BAY FERRY, BEER TO BROOME and the title track that Tom finishes the CD off with.

Overall a damn’ good CD which I hope will be successful for you when pandemical circumstances permit resumption of gigs and other public appearances. Certainly it deserves to  … and thanks a million for your efforts to provide me with my own “hard” copy, which I will always treasure. Thanks also for your interest in my work generally. It goes without saying that any future needs for repertoire contender material would always be welcomed.  …but in regard to the present, do look after yourselves and stay wary and safe and well. I hope we’ll be able to stay in touch.

Best regards/ best wishes,


Forty Degrees South Crossing the Line: Songs of the Southern Ocean

© 2021 Tony Smith i

Shanties and other sea songs are enjoying an upsurge in popularity. Several groups are active around Albany and Perth particularly. The dedicated singers from groups such as ‘The She Shants’, ‘Shantylillies’, ‘Shantily Clad’ ‘The Kat ‘n’ Nine Crew’ and the ‘Lost Quays’ inspired an online hit ‘Wellerman’. In fact there are groups in all states and they congregate at special events such as shanty, folk and wooden boat festivals. ii The late Danny Spooner drew on experience as a mariner and love of the sea to produce several albums in collaboration with shanty groups. iii

Following the popularity of the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movies, Johnny Depp and others assembled the Rogues Gallery CD which was followed by a ‘Son of’ album. In Sydney, the inner city Redfern Shanty Club meets regularly and the veterans of 40 Degrees South are regarded as the club’s godparents.

The beauty of the 22 tracks on this group’s latest album Crossing the Line is that they focus on songs from the southern hemisphere. Of course, not all songs of the sea are work shanties. They include forebitters sung in the forecastle, ballads, capstan, pump and halyard shanties. Shanties typically use a call and response system for maximum audience participation or ease of singing while engaged in heavy or tedious work. Imagine whalers relaxing ashore in a tavern, thumping their tankards of rum on the table as they belt out the chorus to unwind after months at sea.

The four singers Margaret Walters, Chris Maltby, Don Brian and Tom Hanson are stalwarts of the folk music scene in Australia and beyond. They support each other with rich harmonies as each takes a turn with the lead. They are long term collaborators and their voices blend superbly. The common form of shanties is call and response often in the pattern: solo line 1, response A, solo line 2, response B. In ‘On the Middle Ground’ for example, the response runs ‘Whaling in the South Pacific’ then ‘On the Middle Ground’.

The liner notes are excellent. Don Brian is credited with the research and writing and the notes to the songs set a high standard indeed. Brian’s meticulous research is in evidence in his earlier album (with Sue Brian) The Convict Voice: Songs of Transportation to Norfolk Island and NSW. A good few of the songs are traditional: ‘Packet Ship (Bounty Shanty)’, ‘Bob Marney’, ‘Blood Red Roses’, ‘Ballad of the Catalpa’, ‘South Australia’ and ‘Across the Line (The Sailor’s Way)’. Even so, the notes give the provenance of each song explaining which versions are being sung here.

Some tracks are recent. Brian wrote the lyrics to ‘On the Middle Ground’ when researching whaling around New Zealand, and Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands in 2013 and they are set to a tune by evergreen folk composer John Warner. There is Bernard Bolan’s humorous ‘Rose Bay Ferry’ from 1973 and a very welcome inclusion is ‘The Birchgrove Park’ written by Merv Lilley in 1963 and set to music by Bill Berry. The ’60 miler’ collier en route from Newcastle to Sydney foundered off the Barrenjoey light with heavy loss of life.

In the early 1800s when Newcastle was known as Coal River, William Eckford, a forebear of mine and a former Royal Navy gunner, was harbour pilot and guided many vessels past the treacherous Nobbys Head. William had a famous brother Henry who made his name as a naval architect in North America. iv William’s daughter Jane married Frederick Horatio Dixon whose father had a shipbuilding yard in Southwark on the banks of the Thames. Frederick also had a famous brother John Poore Dixon who skippered a vessel called the Argo which seems to have disappeared mysteriously from Hobart Harbour. v All of my ancestors had arrived here by about 1870, so all came over the seas.

Despite these roots, I am not a very good sailor. I would probably be comfortable enough on a Murray River paddleboat, so it is good to see ‘A Nautical Yarn’ included. There are also three songs by Harry Robertson from the 1970s to 1990s are included and it is good to see ‘Ship Repairing Men’ acknowledged. Barry Skipsey’s 1979 ‘Ocean Liner’ arises from his experiences on a prawn trawler in Exmouth Gulf.

As might be expected some songs describe the transportation experience. ‘The Wind and the Waves’, written by Simon Cocker and Matt Woolley in 2010 tells the story of George Loveless, a Tolpuddle Martyr sent to Van Diemens Land in 1834. Harry Robertson’s ‘Assisted Passage (Whaling Barque)’ describes how the rolling of the ship ‘makes our irons clang as we pitch across the ocean to join the iron gang’. Having delivered their miserable cargoes, barques could then go whaling on the return journeys.

‘Whaling Wife’ (Harry Robertson 1971) and ‘Nantucket Girl’s Song’ serve as reminders that the seafaring life took its toll on relationships. While Nantucket is in the north, the song is from the 1855 diary of Eliza Spencer Brock whose husband was master of a ship that went whaling in the Pacific. The song is set to the tune ‘Lachlan Tigers’ and the lyrics are by Martha Ford, wife of the first surgeon in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand.

In a very modern touch the group provides a QR code which links to the lyrics! The album can be ordered online through Bandcamp (electronic and hard copies).

Mind you, the singers present the songs so clearly that few listeners will fail to grasp the words. Forty Degrees South thank producer Christina Mimmocchi (herself an excellent singer) for her enthusiastic support, sound engineer Greg White, and Wayne Richmond (a respected musician) for Humph Hall venue. Just as there are mental and physical benefits to smiling and laughing, singing brings its own rewards. Crossing the Line will help you beat the lockdown.

i Dr Tony Smith is a former academic who now spends time busking and writing songs and reviews. He lives in the bush in the NSW Central West.

ii For example, Albany International Folk ‘n’ Shanty Festival

iii See Danny Spooner

iv See Henry_Eckford_(shipbuilder) Wikipedia

v See Argo_(1806_ship) Wikipedia

  1. gavin holmes

    A beautifully written scientific examination & pulling together of this CD. I WILL buy & listen to this one. Thanks Tony.

  2. How do I buy crossing the line cd

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