Monday, February 10, 2020

A Song of Hope

Courtesy Edinburgh University Library, Goodsir Papers, Gen 301/5en
Those who searched for the men of the lost Franklin expedition were hardy souls, and had to endure many a winter's night in the dark spaces below the decks of their wooden ships. We've known of a number of songs sung amidst the frozen regions, some comic (as how better to relieve the cold monotony of winter), some tragic -- but this one comes to us from a new and unexpected source. About a year and a half ago, I received an unexpected e-mail from a man named Michael Tracy. He identified himself to me as the closest living relation of Harry Goodsir, and had been engaged for some time in searching the archives for everything he could find about him. I was able to share a few things, but Mike's work was much more extensive; it included having transcripts made of all of Harry's letters (which are preserved in the Royal Scottish Geographical Society's archives) and well as arranging for photography of the vast collection of Goodsir papers at the University of Edinburgh. Among those, he made a singular discovery -- one that I'll let him describe in his own words: 
Housed in the University of Edinburgh Special Collections are my family papers.  There are literally hundreds of correspondences, lecture and medical notes, newspaper clippings, and diaries spanning over three generations of the Goodsir family.  Upon the death of Dr. Robert A. Goodsir in 1895, Professor John Chiene, the executor of his estate, donated eleven boxes of Goodsir memorabilia to the University.  
Located near the bottom of one of the boxes, was a faded folded lined page with words for an original song entitled, Song of Hope, written in extremely well-formed handwriting.  Beneath the title written in brackets, is stated, Air: Jennett et Jennetto, clearly a well-known musical tune of the time; at the foot of the Song’s words is a signature in less tutored handwriting, “James Davidson.” This intrigued me.  Why was this saved and what significance, if any, did it hold?  On the Song’s reverse, was an attribution that provided the answer:“Song by James Davidson, A.B. [Able Seaman] on board the Lady Franklin, Assistance Harbour, 10th March 1851.”   
This composition, conserved in Edinburgh University Special Collections Gen 301/5, had been originally recorded by Dr. Robert A. Goodsir, Surgeon, aboard the Lady Franklin during the second Arctic voyage to search and rescue Sir John Franklin and his crews of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, including his brother Harry.  Goodsir had obviously been so impressed by Davidson’s song that he recorded the words and tune to which it was possibly sung by Davidson, whom he honored by having him sign the copy.  Whether the Song of Hope was sung later during the expedition is unknown, but the sentiment of Davidson’s composition encapsulates in naive terms the mood of the moment.  It certainly must have echoed the thoughts of Dr. Robert Goodsir, who liked the song well enough to record and save it for forty-four years until his own death.  
A "Song of Hope"! Mike asked me to find out everything I could about it, and what I discovered just made this find all the more remarkable. The note on the back told me when and where it was written -- the writer's "Assistance Harbor" was certainly the place more commonly known as "Assistance Bay" on Cornwallis Island, where the Franklin search ships "Lady Franklin" and "Sophia" had wintered in 1850-51. Aboard the Lady Franklin was one passenger with a strong personal reason for being there: Robert Goodsir was Harry's brother. As described elsewhere in this blog, he'd been among the first group of people to discover the graves at Beechey Island, and now here he was, waiting out the winter, and -- or so I like to imagine -- singing this song.

The "Air" referenced is more commonly known as "Jeannette and Jeannot" and was one of many similar folk ballads telling a tale of a soldier's farewell to his sweetheart; a number of broadsheet versions can be found in the Bodleian's collections. But there was a particular reason that it would have been on men's minds in 1851, as just three years previous a version adapted by the British theatrical composer Charles William Glover had been a big hit at London's Olympic Theatre in 1848. The only remaining question was what melody the "air" was sung to -- some of the broadside recommended "The Boatman's Dance," but the tone of that tune, to my ear, is much too jolly. Luckily, I stumbled on a version of Glover's own setting, which I feel pretty sure was the melody that this song followed -- you can hear a MIDI version here!

From the Arctic Medal rolls
The only remaining mystery is now the identity of James Davidson, AB -- one must assume he was aboard the same ships, and indeed he appears in the crew list of the Lady Franklin. He must have been a capable man; we know that William Penny chose him as one of the crew for his open boat journey (see Gill Ross's Hunters on the Track, p. 312). It's tempting to imagine he might have been the man of that name who captained the whaler Xanthus, which was sent to relieve the Lady Franklin when she was under-provisioned in Cumberland Sound in 1863, though that would have required him to have left the navy and risen rapidly up the ranks in the Aberdeen whaling fleet. He may have remained in the Royal Navy, though his time there began before "continuous service" records were made, so there's no way to be certain. His name certainly appears in the rolls for the Arctic Medal, but there's no indication that he or his family ever claimed it. For the moment, at least, we will have to be content with knowing only just that much. For now, at least, we can sing his song -- here is the full text of the lyrics and a full image of the original.


  1. My hat is off to Michael Tracy for doing all that work !

  2. I hope I'm not the only one who noticed the strong resemblance to Jingle Bells.

    1. Yes in bars 6-9 the 'turnaround' is quite similar, though if borrowed, then Jingle Bells did the borrowing, as it wasn't published until 1857.

  3. What a wonderful discovery. Brought a tear to my eye reading the lyrics.