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!


  1. My collection counts but 24 so I have a fair way to go to catch up, but in my defence I've fallen for this ballad far more recently than you!

    I am also surprised at how relatively few women have taken it on. Given it's origins as "Lady Franklin's Lament" and voice supposedly being hers, you would think it was a natural fit. The youtube video of O'Connor's version (for copyright reasons apparently, I read somewhere) is interspersed with clips from an interviewer with the singer and the producer about the making of their version. Interestingly, O’Connor originally dismissed the idea of singing it because it was “a boy’s song”.

    As for women singers, I do like the Carmina version (on My Crescent City), which you mentioned, as well as very much the Jeanie Stahl and Janette Geri versions, which you did not. There are also versions from Barbara Dickson, Abbie Lathe, the way too high pitched version from Sue Mcguiness of The Hibernia Consort, Kathy Dagg of Calliope House, Janette Geri, and Jennie McAvoy.

    I think the version by Connie Dover, while very enjoyable in itself, is one of the more intriguing versions, male or female, because she adopts a quite different viewpoint of a third party observer of Lady Franklin’s grief. Unlike the other versions, the singer is clearly not either Lady Franklin or a sailor as she sings a slightly different version of the lyrics. That, for me, was quite a find. It starts out with the traditional first stanza, slightly altered (“It was” instead of “We were”): “It was homeward bound one night on the deep/Swinging in my hammock I fell asleep/I dreamed a dream and I thought it true/Concerning Franklin and his gallant crew.” But then there is an alternative second stanza that I haven’t heard or read elsewhere that confirms the third party observer viewpoint:

    As I did wander on some foreign shore,
    I saw a lady and she did deplore
    She wept aloud and to me did say
    Oh my loving husband is so long away.

    It then continues traditionally - “With 100 seamen he sailed away/To the frozen ocean in the month of May,/To seek a passage around the pole/Where these poor sailors do sometimes go. - but note the “these poor sailors” instead of the “we poor sailors”. Then, in the next stanza, she has two different lines than is traditionally sung.

    They sailed west and they sailed east,
    Their ships on oceans of ice did freeze.
    Only the Eskimo with his skin canoe
    Was the only one that ever came through.

    The rest is the same as the other versions without change.

    The version that I most adore, and actually brought a few tears to my eyes the first few times I heard it even after having heard a dozen different versions of the song, is the version by Take Two. There is just something that so resonates with me with this song, makes me pause and focus, draws me in.

    Which is the real power of good art. Especially looking back as historians, it is art and culture that captures the human experience far more powerfully than raw data points and lists of facts. Art does not merely "bring the story to life" like a re-enactment or dramatization, but it strikes a very real, human and emotional connection to the events, the time and the people caught up in those events. That connection can lead to understanding that simple study and knowledge of facts cannot accomplish.

    It is not surprising that it was this song that drew you into the Franklin story. It is what personalized it for me and gave me a deeper understanding and interest.

  2. Ooops. Missed one. Jennie McAvoy is another woman who has attempted the some and she has also sung the same alternate version as Dover.