Saturday, May 22, 2010

Baldwin: Hero or Villain?

Evelyn Briggs Baldwin is surely one of the least well-known of Polar explorers, and according to some historians, his obscurity is richly deserved. To them, he is a man whose poor judgment was pivotal in the failure of two major Polar expeditions: that of Walter Wellman's in 1898, as well as in the richly-supplied but poorly planned Baldwin-Ziegler expedition of 1901, which he commanded. And yet there is at least some evidence that this blame may be misplaced, and that Baldwin's seeming failures were, in fact, evidence of a wise and hard-earned sense of caution.

Baldwin got his start working as a meteorologist with Robert Peary in Greenland in 1893-4. He apparently caught the Arctic bug, and in 1896 published a weighty tome, The Search for the North Pole. Or, Life in the Great White World. On the title page of this book, which was sold by subscription, he listed himself as a "Member of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, Member of the National Geographic Society, Non-resident member of the Geographical Club of Philadelphia," and "formerly Assistant Observer, United States Weather Bureau." It was a slender portfolio, but his enthusiasm was enormous; the book opened with a ferocious defense of the value of Polar exploration, and continued through accounts of every explorer from the Vikings to Franklin to Peary. Some of the funds thus earned apparently helped him undertake a personal voyage to Spitzbergen in 1897, but his real test came when he was engaged by Walter Wellman as second-in-command of the magnate's first Polar attempt (and his only by land) in 1897. There, he led an advance party through truly horrific ice conditions in order to establish depots and a forward camp, while Wellman stayed back at the expedition's comfortable headquarters, known as "Harmsworth House." After enormous hardships, Baldwin succeeded in establishing the forward camp, and left two men there to await the arrival of the full expedition the following spring.

William Mills, in his reference work Exploring Polar Frontiers, blames Baldwin for leaving the men with inadequate supplies, and says that "Wellman himself was horrified" when they arrived to find one of the men dead and the survivor sleeping next to his corpse. Yet as my good friend P.J. Capelotti notes in his book By Airship to the North Pole, Wellman's orders to Baldwin were numerous, contradictory, and in some cases impossible; it was these orders, and not Baldwin's efforts to follow them, that were most to blame. Wellman ignored Baldwin's letters expressing concerns about supplies and conditions; he possessed an optimism as vast as his experience was limited, and complained that Baldwin was "too prone to look on the dark side of things." Neither man, in any case, knew that one of the two left in the camp, Bentzen -- a veteran of Nansen's voyage on the Fram -- had slipped into delirium not long into the winter, forcing the other man, Bjoervig, to care for him for eight weeks before the sufferer finally died. Capelotti has published Baldwin's detailed journal of this expedition, and it's hard to read more than a few pages of it without being overcome by a desire to go back in time and give Wellman a sound thrashing.

Mills seems to think that rumors surrounding the earlier incident would have followed Baldwin to his next expedition, and the only one he was to command. The Baldwin-Ziegler expedition of 1901 had the finest equipment money could buy, and supplies that were lavish when compared to those to which Peary or other polar veterans were accustomed. Not one but three ships were placed at its command, and its base station -- fixed up in the shadow of the Duke of Abruzzi's earlier camp -- boasted solid wood-frame buildings unparalleled since the days of Greely's Fort Conger. Here again, Baldwin had the task of establishing forward camps, and by all accounts did so capably. Mills harshly blames Baldwin's decision to avoid the added weight of tents and sleeping bags for the forward team, as several members suffered from frostbite -- but this was only after they had become lost and disoriented. When the heavily-laden resupply ship failed to reach the base camp, Baldwin did as he'd been told and released a series of message balloons, none of which was found until years later. Receiving no response, and concerned over the dwindling supplies of coal, Baldwin decided to retreat back to safety. His unexpected appearance in Tromsø without results infuriated Ziegler and cost him his command -- but it may well have saved the lives of many of his men.

In later years, Baldwin never tired of telling his accounts; as Capelotti notes, he was a meticulous record-keeper, and his papers are a goldmine of information. Late in life, he set about petitioning the U.S. government for some recognition and financial support in return for his service, but never received either; at the age of 71 in 1933, he was struck and killed by a passing motorist in Washington, DC. A copy of his book -- long ago de-accessioned by a local library, and missing its spine and back cover -- was given to me by a student, and I had to confess that, when I first browsed through it, I had no idea who Baldwin was.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Lords Franklin

Over the (now) more than hundred and sixty years since his disappearance, the fame of Sir John Franklin shows little sign of diminishing; in just the past year we've had a new biography, as well as yet another novel (by my count, the seventeenth) based on his life. And setting written texts aside, one of the most enduring sources of interest in Franklin's fate surely derives from the ballad known as "Lord Franklin" or "Lady Franklin's Lament." It was hearing the late Michael O Domhnaill's version of this song some twenty years ago that began my own Franklin fascination, and as time has passed I have accumulated other recordings of this plaintive ballad, a habit accelerated by the digital age. At last count I have more than forty different versions in my music library, and I'm certain that my collection is very far from complete.

The history of the ballad itself and its variants would make a long story, but suffice it to say that about 90% of the versions I know are based on Martin Carthy's 1966 version, released on his Second Album LP. Carthy shortened the lyrics to five well-rounded stanzas, and his slight variation of the source melody (an Irish air known as "The Croppy Boy" or Cailín Óg a Stór) has been universally carried forward. What follows is my own personal account of what I think are the best (and worst) versions, with a few comments on the more notable variations -- I hope that, should this ballad be one of your favorites, I might help you find further versions to enjoy, and avoid the (relatively few) awful ones.

As I say, Michael O Domhnaill's version, with his reedy yet potent voice, was the first I heard, and it remains my personal favorite. The well-known version by Pentagle is also a classic, and John Renbourn's guitar work on the tune is second to none. Another outstanding traditional version is John Walsh's from his album Aon Dó Trí (that's one two three in Irish); another by Take Two (the moniker of two Shropshire lads name of Dave Rolfe and Kevin Arnold) is also memorable. Special mention for over-use of echo should go to Sinéad O Connor's otherwise lovely recording, although rumor has it that an echo-free version is floating around the ether somewhere.

Rockier, or poppier versions also abound; that by the Glasgow-based Pearlfishers is the prize among these, though capable covers by the Tramps, Carmina, or Connie Dover are also appealing. For those who, at the other end of the spectrum, feel that anything more than a raspy a capella is too fancy, the Revels' version on their Homeward Bound CD is to my mind the best of the foke'sull school. I would warn, though, against the traditional version offered by "The Seamen's Institute" -- the tuneless warble of the unnamed singer on their version sounds rather like Sterling Holloway (the voice of Disney's Winnie the Pooh) after a night of excessive mead-guzzling.

One might well ask why a ballad which -- at least in part, and in some versions entirely -- is sung from Lady Franklin's point of view, why there have not been more versions by women. The gender imbalance has been greatly rectified in the digital age, with at least ten new recordings in the past decade. I'm personally fond of Jo Freya's version, with its pennywhistle and concertina accompaniment; Louise Killen's version, from her "Stars in the Morning" album, is also quite enchanting. The vocal treatment by the "Roots Quartet," alas, is far less felicitous; not only is the melody transposed into a modal version, but it's festooned with tinny harmonies that are reminiscent of a Roches outtake.

Lastly, there are a few instrumental-only versions, of which that recorded by Giuseppe Leopizzi and Roselina Guzzo is particularly rich and resonant. The melody has also been appropriated for other songs, among them Bob Dylan's "Bob Dylan's Dream" and David Wilcox's haunting "Jamie's Secret," which transposes the tale of Franklin's loss to the loss of a friend in the North Cascades of Washington State.

I'd be interested to hear from anyone who feels a favorite version has been slighted, or who disagrees with any of my calls!