“Long we’ve toiled on the rolling wave”: 

One sea song’s journey from the gun deck to Hollywood






A paper presented at the Music of the Sea Symposium

June 11, 2010









Jerry Bryant

25 Columbia Drive

Amherst, MA 01002







Table of Contents



Introduction: Where’d you get that song?. 3

Origins:  A Song that Somebody Wrote. 3

Transmission and Publication:  The folk process. 6

Transmitter:  Sir J.K. Laughton. 6

Publisher:  Sir Charles H. Firth. 7

Transmitter:  James Runciman. 9

Publisher:  Sir Richard R. Terry. 10

Revival and Recording 1:  Once Upon a Tyne. 12

Transmission:  The Mystic Connection. 14

Revival and Recording 2:  A New Century. 15

Film:  The Road to Hollywood. 16

Timeline and Touchstones:  Who and When. 17

Conclusion. 17

Bibliography. 19



Introduction: Where’d you get that song?


One of the most common questions I am asked as an interpreter of traditional sea music is “Where did you get that song?”  My answer is usually a variation of  “out of a book,” or “from a recording,” or “from another singer.”  Only rarely can I provide a deeper response by naming the composer.  And I’ve never been able to say how a particular song made its way from its creator to me, which – for a traditional folk song – is the ultimate answer to the question.


Today, however, I must change the word “never” in that last sentence to “only once”.  If you were to ask me where I got the song Don’t Forget Your Old Shipmate I can now answer fully, and name the five individuals who had a hand in putting the song in my way.  This is a rather rare thing in folk music, to be able to trace one composition from the mid-19th century, identifying all the people who moved it along its path to a specific point in time in the late 20th century.


We all understand the folk process, by which traditional songs (which are, as one wit put it, “songs nobody wrote”) are handed down through the years, being winnowed, reshaped, and polished.  Most of the time we can only imagine what people have played a part in that process.  The song which is the topic of my presentation today, however, is an excellent specimen for examining the folk process at work, from beginning to current state, because Don’t Forget Your Old Shipmate has been minimally handled over the past 150 years. 


My title promises a trip to Hollywood.  I could well have ended my examination of this song’s history with moi, but being not totally insensible of the magnetic effect film celebrity has on American culture, I thought it might boost attendance at the Symposium to throw in a little glitz.  In addition, I’m guessing that most of us here get at least a small thrill knowing that millions of people all over the world heard a couple of traditional sailor songs while watching Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. 


Here’s where we’re bound today.  I’ll illustrate for you the journey Don’t Forget Your Old Shipmate took from the pen of its creator, Royal Navy Instructor Richard C. Saunders, through the minds and mouths of three Knights of the British Empire, a Deptford school teacher, the choirmaster of Westminster Cathedral, a Tyneside folk singer, a Rhode Island lithographer, a Massachusetts insurance salesman, the Connecticut captain of a square-rigger, and an Australian film director, to its silver screen debut by Russell Crowe and his fellow actors in Master and Commander. 



Origins:  A Song that Somebody Wrote


The song was written by Richard Creagh Saunders, who spent 26 years in the Royal Navy.  He was born in 1809, earned a Bachelor’s degree and enlisted in the navy as a Schoolmaster on the 11th of July, 1839.  Details about his life are scarce; he appears to be descended from a respected family in Cork, Ireland – the Creaghs.  He died in London in 1886, at the age of 77.


Proof of his authorship comes from the book in which the song was first published:  Naval Songs and Ballads, edited by Charles H. Firth[1].  In the notes to the song (which is the last of 206 arranged in chronological order, the first being The Battle of Slys written in 1352) Firth states, “By R.C. Saunders…” 


Digging into Saunders’s history reveals that he served at sea for over two decades[2].  His initial rank of Schoolmaster indicates that his job was teaching the midshipmen and other youths on board (such as the ship’s boys and officers’ servants), who were usually boys in their early to mid teens.  Saunders served mostly on ships of the line, which had enough midshipmen to justify having a dedicated teacher; in a typical 2nd or 3rd rate naval vessel in the early 19th century, there could be 10 to 20 midshipmen.  The subjects he taught included navigation, arithmetic, reading, and writing[3].  In the Royal Navy of the time, the Schoolmaster was the only petty office required to present credentials testifying to his character, so we can assume that Richard Saunders was a decent sort of fellow. 


In his introduction, Firth gives the date of the song’s composition as 1860.  At this time Saunders was serving on the HMS Marlborough, a 131-gun screw ship (which combined sail and steam power) built in 1855; she was then the largest ship ever commissioned by the Admiralty.  She was the flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet and it appears that Saunders served on board during the entirety of her six-year commission as flagship.  This was the pinnacle of Saunders’s sea-going service.  He had served in other warships, of course, with names such as Impregnable, and Termagant; and he was aboard the HMS Asia , of 84 guns, during her cruise in the Pacific in the early 1850s, so there’s a very good chance he rounded the Horn.  He was most assuredly a shellback, since the Asia was reported at Lima on Christmas Day of 1850. 


Saunders definitely saw battle during his career.  Although he joined the Navy after the Napoleonic Wars had ended, he was aboard the HMS Boscawen, a 70-gun ship, when she fought in the Baltic theatre of the Crimean War.  Boscawen captured two Russian prizes in April, 1854,[4] so Saunders must have earned some prize money, which would have been a welcome bonus to his 2-figure salary.


In 1864 Saunders was paid off from the Marlborough, and according to the records this was the end of his service at sea.  We can deduce that he was appointed to the faculty of the Royal Naval School, with the newly-established rank of Naval Instructor (the deduction is necessary since I could not find a list of faculty from that year, but the Naval Instructor rank was given only to officers teaching on land).  The handwritten entry in his service record is cryptic, and may explain his leaving the seaborne service for a land-based position.  The notation reads “23 July 1864 Invalided preservation of life _ arrived 6 Aug 64”.  Was he ill as a result of his cruise in the Med?  That’s entirely possible, since there was an epidemic of fevers while the fleet was anchored at Malta; the surgeon of the Marlborough reported that “There were several officers in the number… Rheumatism was a very troublesome concomitant.”  We don’t know if Saunders was stricken, but the note about arriving on August 6 may refer to his new posting to the school.  Perhaps, at the age of 56, he was no longer up to the rigors of life at sea.  According to Merriam-Webster[5], invalided means “to remove from active duty by reason of sickness or disability.” 


The Royal Naval School, located in the 1860s in a suburb of London close to the navy towns of Greenwich and Deptford, was described in an 1865 tourist guidebook to London:

The ROYAL NAVAL SCHOOL, New Cross, Kent, was founded in 1844, for educating, at the least possible expense, the sons of the less affluent naval and marine officers (giving a preference to those whose fathers have fallen in their country's service).[6]


It was a “charitable institution”, maintained by the tuition fees and subscriptions of the public, to provide a measure of recompense to the sons of Royal Navy, Marine and Coast Guard officers who had served in the wars of the first 20 years of the 19th century.  As the Illustrated London News put it in 1843: “If there are any of our youth who have a peculiar right to be entitled "the children of the state," it is the offspring of naval and military men who have grown grey in the service of their country, and many of them laid down their lives for its honour and interests.”[7]


The Navy was beginning to realize that it might make sense to ensure that the young men entering the service as midshipmen have a minimum level of education: a 20th-century scholar writes, “By the 1860s reading and writing was most definitely a requirement for entry to the R.N.[8] 


This is where Richard Saunders appears to have finished his naval career.  His service record shows that he retired in 1865.  But his presence at the school in 1864 and ’65 is significant, because it forged one or more links in the chain of individuals who carried Don’t Forget Your Old Shipmate into the future.







Transmission and Publication:  The folk process


Transmitter:  Sir J.K. Laughton


We know that as soon as a song is created and shared with others the folk process begins.  Old Shipmate is no exception.  We can picture Naval Instructor Saunders in the ward room of the Marlborough, singing his new song for his fellow officers, and being asked in the following weeks to sing it again and again.  When visiting officers from other ships in the fleet joined the company, they would likely have heard the song and  joined in on the chorus as a decanter of port went round the table.  Perhaps it was at just such a convivial event that John Knox Laughton heard the song.


Sir J.K. Laughton, as he would eventually be known, served as a instructor in the Royal Navy at the same time, and on the same stations, as Richard Saunders.  He was responsible for moving the song along its path to first publication, so he gets credit for being a transmitter – a carrier – in the song’s history.  He was born in 1830 in Liverpool, the son of a wine merchant who had been captain of a privateer.  He graduated from university in 1852, and joined the Navy right away. 


Laughton served in the Baltic during the Crimean War, and most likely met Saunders there.  He also was part of the Mediterranean fleet when Saunders was on the flagship, giving him the opportunity to hear Saunders’s new song.  Like Saunders, Laughton was a schoolmaster, and was in the HMS Algiers in 1860.  He became a member of the Royal Naval College faculty in 1866, and so would likely have continued his association with Saunders while there; even if Saunders was retired from the Navy, we can assume his circle included his former colleagues at the school.


There was a strong bond between the two men, as Laughton himself states in a notation that appears in Firth.  In the notes to a song titled Cawsand Bay, Firth includes this: 


Version supplied by Sir J.K. Laughton, who writes: ‘It was brought into vogue about fifty years ago by a dear friend and brother officer of mine, Richard Creagh Saunders, then Naval Instructor of the Marlborough, the flagship in the Mediterranean.  He was a man of poetic feeling, with a pretty turn for versifying, and a good knowledge of music, though no voice to speak of.[9]


Given that Laughton and Saunders were ‘dear friends’, it’s reasonable to assume that Laughton heard the song Don’t Forget Your Old Shipmate  directly from the lips of Richard Saunders, its author.  Whether he transcribed it or just learned by ear and remembered it, the fact is that 50 years later Laughton passed it along to Charles H. Firth, who was then putting together a large collection of songs and ballads related to the Royal Navy.  Laughton’s biographer, Andrew Lambert, mentions that Laughton had an interest in “naval songs”[10] so we can feel confident in assuming that he learned and remembered the songs of his friend, and therefore was able to pass them along to Firth around 1907.


Laughton’s connection to Firth came through the former’s position as Secretary (and co-founder) of the Navy Records Society, of which Firth was a vice president from 1905 to 1909.  The Society (as their website testifies today) “publishes original documents on the Royal Navy, providing a valuable source for serving officers, scholars and all those interested in British naval history and the development of naval power generally.  Over the past 100 years the Society’s publications have included more than 150 volumes of documents…”[11]  Laughton contributed four songs to volume 33 of the society’s publications, two of which he learned from his friend Richard Saunders.


Publisher:  Sir Charles H. Firth


In 1908 Don’t Forget Your Old Shipmate  was published for the first time, in the aforementioned volume of the Navy Records Society entitled Naval Songs and Ballads.  “Selected and edited” by Sir Charles Harding Firth, the book is long out of print, but it is a trove of lyrics dealing with the exploits of the Royal Navy from the 14th century through the 19th .  Sadly, no melodies are supplied by Firth, though he does provide references to some tunes in an appendix. 


Firth, who made his name as a historian of 17th century English history, must have become engaged in naval history by association with Sir J.K. Laughton, who was a tireless advocate for the professional study of history, and the naval variety in particular.  Firth, also, supported the need for rigorous training of historians, and served as president of the Royal Historical Society.  He was an Oxford professor of modern history at the time he published Naval Songs and Ballads, and by including Saunders’s composition in his book he ensured that it would not go the way of so many sailor songs, forgotten and unsung.


The introduction to the collection is full of interesting tidbits on the history of the songs, and the extensive notes illuminate them even more.  I believe I know my audience, and therefore will hazard this quote from Firth’s introduction, about the displacement of real sailor songs by those composed by landsmen for the music halls.  He references a set of sketches of naval life by a Captain Glascock, who apparently wrote in the vernacular.


“Captain Glascock in 1834 noted the supersession of the old naval songs by ditties fashionable at the moment on shore.

‘For the whole three years as I sarv’d in that there March-o’-Mind man-o’-war I never hears so much as a sailor’s song – a song as ye could call a reg’lar built seaman’s stave.’

‘No, Ned, you doesn’t now often hear the staves as we used to sing in the war – you never now hears Will ye go to Cawsin Bay, Billy Bo, Billy Bo – nor the Saucy Arethusa, -- nor the Bold Brittany – Black coulours under her mizzen did flyFrom Ushant to Scilly is thirty-five leagues, an’ many more of sim’lar sort.’

‘No, no, Sam – you’re right enough – your March-o’-Mind men must now come your simmy-dimmy quiv’ring quivers – tip ye soft sentimental touches – sigh away like ladies in love, an’ never sing nothing’ but your silly sicknin’ stuff, as often used to frighten the geese an’ make ‘em cackle in the coop, for all the world like the comin’ of a heavy hurricane.  Moreover, your March-o’-Mind men never will sing a single stave as admits of the main thing – for what’s a song as won’t allow all hands to jine in reg’lar chorus?  No, no, your March-o’-Mind men haven’t, you may depend on it, the mind of men  -- they think far more like people as rigs it in petticoats, nor they as tog in trowsers.  Now what looks more young-ladyish nor to see a fellor with a fist like a shoulder of mutton, flinging his flipper about an’ suitin’ his antics to his song, as he snivels out “Strike – strike the light guitar!”’ (William N. Glascock, Naval Sketch-book, 2nd series, i.236; E.L. Carey & A. Hart, Philadelphia, 1835)”[12]


Here is the version of Don’t Forget Your Old Shipmate as Sir C.H. Firth published it 102 years ago. 


We’re the boys that fear no noise

     Whilst thundering cannons roar,

And long we’ve toiled on the rolling wave,

     And now we’re safe on shore.

            Don’t forget your old shipmate,

            Fal de  rol.


Since we sailed from Plymouth Sound,

      Four years gone, tonight, Jack,

Were there ever chummies known,

      Such as you and I, Jack?

            Don’t forget, etc.


We have served the self-same gun,

      Quarter-deck division,

Sponger I, and loader, you,

      Through the whole commission.

            Don’t forget, etc.


Oftentimes have we laid out,

      Toil nor danger fearing,

Hauling out the flapping sail

      To the weather ear-ring.

            Don’t forget, etc.


When the middle watch was on,

      And the time went slow, boy,

Who could tune a rousing stave,

      Who like Jack or Joe, boy?

            Don’t forget, etc.


There she swings, an empty hulk,

      Not a soul below, now;

Number seven, starboard mess

      Misses Jack and Joe now.

            Don’t forget, etc.


But the best of friends must part,

      Fair or foul the weather;

Tip us your flipper for a shake,

      Now a drink together;

            And don’t forget your old shipmate, etc.


The song had now attained immortality, of a sort, and Richard Saunders was saved from total obscurity.  He had composed at least one “traditional” sailor song which has passed down the centuries to be sung and enjoyed today.  But the tantalizing question left unanswered is how many other songs did he compose?  And what happened to them?  Perhaps someday a notebook of his songs will come to light– we can only hope.


Exciting as it is to have found this thread that passes from Saunders to Laughton to Firth, it is actually a dead end.  No modern singer has performed or recorded the song exactly as given by Firth, and we have no idea what melody Saunders used.  It was up to another British knight to pass the song to us folk revivalists, and that’s where we must now turn to continue our trek.


But, before we change course, enjoy these factoids from this branch of the song’s history:

1.  In Firth’s collection, of the 107 songs he gives, 56 of them – which is 52% of the total – begin with the words “Come all you…” 

2.  Sir J.K. Laughton’s daughter, Elvira Laughton Mathews, was director of the Women’s Royal Naval Service during World War II – a uniquely 20th-century example of the child following in the father’s footsteps.


Transmitter:  James Runciman


Having come ‘round on another heading, we must now leave London behind and journey to Northumberland, along the northeast coast of England.  There we find the Runciman family, headed by Walter, a “coast guard” and former sea captain.  In the village of Cresswell, in 1852, son James was born to Walter and his wife Jean, the last of  8 children.  Two of James’s brothers became master mariners, but he chose a more academic path, becoming a teacher, journalist and author, before dying of consumption at the age of 39.  In that short span of years he was to have an important influence on his nephew, Richard Terry, that has redounded to us later lovers of sea music. 


Runciman’s most significant literary contributions were two publications which described the lives of the fishermen of the North Sea, with whom he spent many of his vacations.  A collection of his seafaring sketches was published in 1883 as The Romance of the Coast.  But the event that makes him an important part of today’s story is the two years he spent at the Royal Naval School, from 1863 to 1865.  As the son of a coast guard he was entitled to the subsidized schooling, and his enrollment there coincided with the brief tenure of Naval Instructor Richard Saunders, who arrived in 1864 and retired in 1865. 


My limited research has not produced conclusive proof that James Runciman had Richard Saunders as an instructor.  Clearly Runciman was gone from the school by the time John Laughton arrived to take up his professorial duties in 1866.  It’s possible that Runciman and Saunders never met, but that would make it a lot harder to explain how James Runciman learned Don’t Forget Your Old Shipmate .  And learn it he did, because he sang it for his nephew, Sir Richard Runciman Terry, who eventually published it in 1931.


Publisher:  Sir Richard R. Terry


A love of singing typifies the sea music aficionado, so perhaps that helps explain why a man who published a volume of chanteys in the 1920s, and another volume of forebitters in 1931, earned a knighthood for reviving the Roman Catholic liturgical music of English Renaissance composers.  How wonderful it is that this tale of a sailor’s song relies so heavily on the man who wrote the Westminster Hymnal, which was for many years the standard for Roman Catholics in Britain.


Richard Runciman Terry was born in 1864 in Northumberland, and baptized in Cresswell, the town his uncle James was born in 12 years earlier.  He became an organist and pursued a career in sacred choral music, serving at churches in Antigua and Somerset before being appointed the organist and music director of the newly-built Westminster Cathedral in 1901.  He resigned this post in 1924, due to criticism for his “bold choice of works.  Evidently, he wasn’t staid enough for the parishioners.


Without a job in the field he had pursued all of his adult life, Terry fell back on the music of his Northumbrian family, and – riding a popular wave of sea music interest in the 1920s – published a two-part collection of chanteys, titled The Shanty Book.  That is a relatively obscure book, but even less well known is his collection of main hatch songs entitled Salt Sea Ballads, which he published in 1931[13]. 


What a blessing it was to have a trained musician with seafaring roots write a book of sea songs:  he transcribed and published the melodies of each one, to say nothing about arranging each for the piano!  As the title page of book so satisfyingly puts it:  “Collected and edited, with Pianoforte accompaniment by R. R. Terry”.  For the first time we have the melody of Old Shipmate, and can now “tune a rousing stave.”


Perhaps we should stop referring to the versions by the names of the editors of the books they appeared in, and instead label them according to their transmitters.  Accordingly, there are some slight differences in the lyrics of Laughton’s and Runciman’s versions, but the first verses are significantly different.  Laughton “communicated” this as verse number one to Charles Firth:


We’re the boys that fear no noise whilst thundering cannons roar,

And long we’ve toiled on the rolling wave and now we’re safe on shore.

            Don’t forget your old shipmate, Fal de  rol…


Runciman sang this for his nephew, Richard Terry:


Safe and sound at home again, let the waters roar, Jack. } bis. [14]

Long we’ve tossed on the rolling main, now we’re safe ashore, Jack.

Don’t forget your old shipmate, Fol de rol…


Here is the folk process served up in a tureen.  The evidence shows that both of our transmitters – Laughton and Runciman – learned the song from Richard Saunders, and yet when they passed it along to the editors who would publish the song, the wording of first verse had diverged dramatically.  Remarkably, 96% of the words in verses 2 through 7 are shared between the two versions, but in the first verse only 21% are the same. 


What could account for this?  Did Saunders revise his own work, so that J.K. Laughton heard an earlier version and James Runciman a later?  More likely is that the transmitters are responsible for the difference.  Laughton probably learned the song in the early 1860s, and passed it along to Firth in 1907.  If he didn’t have it written down, but retrieved it from memory, how might his memory of it have changed in 50 years?  


By the same token, we don’t know when James Runciman sang the song for his nephew, but it’s reasonable to assume it was while Terry was young.  Runciman left the Naval School in 1865 (when Terry was 1 year old) and died in 1891 (when Terry was 27).  If Uncles James shared his navy songs with a 10 year old Richard Terry in 1874 say, that was just 10 years after James would have heard the song from Saunders.  And if you have ever been a 10 year old boy, you know how songs you hear at that age can stick in your memory for the rest of your life. 


There is one other factor to consider, however:  the future professional historian and acknowledged lover of sailor songs John Laughton could well have written down the words to his friend’s song, while young James Runciman might just have learned it by heart.  So which first verse is the one Richard Saunders wrote?  That’s impossible to say without further research.  But the fact remains that James Runciman’s version is the one that leads to Hollywood, relegating Laughton’s first verse, with its thundering cannons, to the domain of nerdy sea music researchers.



Revival and Recording 1:  Once Upon a Tyne


The song’s path has been rather a hop-scotch kind of journey, with outcroppings of visibility between years of obscurity.  Written in 1860, first published in 1908, published again in 1931.  The next appearance of the song occurred 40 years later, and in that interval the world had changed.  In this part of the story sound recordings of the song appear, in the context of the folk and sea music revival in the United Kingdom and America, and performers are paid to sing the songs that once were shared freely in homes, pubs and forecastles.  For the first time in its history, people pay money to hear Don’t forget your old shipmate.


In the early 1970s, in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, Jim Mageean searched the Central Library for books containing traditional songs of Northumberland.  Mageean had begun learning and singing sea songs in the early 1960s, at the Bridge folk club in Newcastle, influenced by Louis Killen.  On that particular day in the library, Mageean came across Sir Richard R. Terry’s book, and found Old Shipmate therein.  He taught the song to his newly-formed quartet Tarry Trousers[15], who made it part of their repertoire.


When Mageean moved to London in 1975 he continued presenting the song in his solo performances.  In 1978 he recorded it on his second LP of traditional sea music – Of Ships…And Men [16].  After this, Mageean says, the song gradually faded from his repertoire as he began singing with Johnny Collins in the late ‘70s and formed the group The Keelers in 1986, which he still performs with today.


In an e-mail[17] Mageean states:  “I am certain that no one ever recorded [the song] before me and [I] had never heard anyone else sing it…”  The LP has never been re-released in CD or cassette format, and sadly it is out of print.  It presents 12 songs, ending with Old Shipmate, and the cover features a drawing by Stan Hugill, who was an important influence on Mageean’s music.  For you fans of Hugill’s art, this is apparently its only publication.


Mageean’s recording provides another example of the folk process in action.  He learned the words and music directly from Terry’s book Salt Sea Ballads.  According to an e-mail from him to the author[18] he is “pretty sure” that he sang it “right”, since he made a photocopy of the song in the library.  However, by the time he recorded it he had made the song his own by changing the nature of the verse and chorus structure.  Remember that Terry published a chorus consisting solely of the words “Don’t forget your old shipmate, fol de rol de rol de rol de rido”.  Let’s look at Mageean’s recording and note what happened.


The repetition of the first line of each verse, which is clearly marked in Terry’s arrangement, has been changed by Mageean, who sings the entire couplet to the first melody phrase.  The second melodic phrase is then used by him as part of the chorus melody, taking a line from the first verse and attaching it to the “real” chorus as Terry gives it.  Taking the fourth verse as an example, this is how Mageean presents it:


Often times have we laid out, toil nor danger fearing [line not repeated]

Tugging out the flapping sail to the weather earring.


Long we’ve tossed on the rolling main, now we’re safe on shore, Jack.

Don’t forget your old shipmate, fol de rol…


How curious!  A singer learns a song from a book which includes the melody, and within ten years records it with a significant structural change, even though he had a photocopy of the song as a reference.  This, I believe, shows how subtle the folk process can be.  In this case, I admit to preferring the structure Mageean used over what Terry published; it makes the song more interesting to sing, though no words have been changed.  Mageean had spent close to a decade singing traditional songs by the time he found Old Shipmate; he knew his stuff, and he knew his audience.  To late 20th-century ears the unvarying repetition of the first line and musical phrase of each verse becomes a bit boring, and the short chorus – made up mostly of nonsense syllables – doesn’t give performers or audience much chance to harmonize.  Mageean’s enhancement of the chorus solved both problems neatly. 


Mageean is unaware that he “folk processed” the song.  That is often the case, I believe: a singer makes changes to words or tune without thinking much about it – it’s done to make the song easier or more enjoyable to sing, or perhaps to make the narrative clearer, or because of a memory lapse.  We tend to think that the folk process was more at work in the days when folk music was passed on orally.  As the case of Old Shipmate shows, even people who read music can put their own stamp on a song for any number of reasons, changing it before our very eyes. 


According to Jim Mageean, he has encountered no other singers who know Old Shipmate.[19]  Another informant, Chris Roche, states, “…David Jones used to sing it and I think Lou Killen.”[20]  Nonetheless, it appears that Mageean is entitled to sole credit for reviving the song.  He performed it in the ‘70s and ‘80s at folk clubs, festivals and concerts in England and on the continent, but in 1981 he and his partner Johnny Collins came to the U.S. to do a tour on the east coast, and they brought the song with them.  This North Atlantic crossing is another milestone.



Transmission:  The Mystic Connection


Jim and Johnny performed in Providence, RI, among other places (such as the Mystic Sea Music Festival) in the spring of 1981.  As promotional material for radio airplay Mageean brought along copies of his two LPs:  Capstan Bars and Of Ships…And Men.  Looking for an opening act for the concert, the promoter tapped an up-and-coming Rhode Island band that specialized in sea music: Wickford Express.  Thinking it would help them prepare their opening set, she gave the band’s leader, Dave Peloquin, a copy of the two LPs. 


We don’t know if Mageean and Collins sang Old Shipmate at any of their gigs during that tour.  All that is certain is that Peloquin devoured the contents of the records, and eight years later regurgitated yet another version of the song at the 1989 Mystic Seaport Sea Music Festival.


That year was the 10th anniversary of the festival, and Wickford Express[21] was featured in the Friday night concert, which in those days was the opening night.  Peloquin, a former Seaport chanteyman, wanted to recognize the anniversary and honor its founder, Stuart Frank.  He remembered the song and unearthed Mageean’s album, then learned the song.   Peloquin states that he made a conscious revision to the first verse of the song as a tribute.[22]  A field recording was made at that concert, which was supplied to me by Mr. Peloquin.


Once again, the folk had processed the first verse and left the rest of the song alone.  It’s remarkable that almost everyone who has touched the song has done something significant to the words of the first verse.  Mageean alone did nothing to that verse, which in itself is noteworthy, given how he changed the structure of the subsequent verses.   Peloquin’s revision reads:


Safe and sound back home again let the waters roar, boys
One last song in bold refrain let your voices soar, boys.


Long we’ve tossed on the rolling main…


He used the same verse and chorus melodic structure as Jim Mageean.  Here is another aspect of the folk process:  deliberate changes to suit a given occasion or purpose. 


After learning the song, Peloquin performed it regularly during the 1990s, at Mystic Seaport and other venues.  He eventually settled on a first verse lyric that is a revision of his revision, and which is closer to Mageean’s version:


Safe and sound back home again, let the waters roar, Jack.
One last tune in glad refrain let our voices soar, Jack.

[chorus]  Long we’ve tossed on the rolling main…


Revival and Recording 2:  A New Century


I was present at that 10th annual sea music festival, and heard Wickford Express perform the song, joining in on the very singable, though antique-sounding, chorus.  Hearing Peloquin’s group present it over the years kept the knowledge of its existence fresh in my memory.  However, I can’t recall hearing anyone else sing the song over the past 20 years.  Just as in England, where the song was adopted and fostered by one performer, here in the States a single man – Dave Peloquin –  kept it alive into the 21st century.  Perhaps it is the folderol chorus that puts people off, or the fact that it’s clearly a naval song (the sea music revival has been strongly focused on the music of merchant sailors, with little attention paid to the large body of naval material). 


In 1999 I began work on a recording project which prompted me to learn and begin singing Old Shipmate.  I put together a CD of songs that might have been sung by Royal Navy sailors in the first half of the 19th century.  Published in 2000, under title Roast Beef of Old England, the CD ends with Richard Saunders’s song.  I had no proof at the time of its age or provenance, but included it because it sounded just right for the CD.


Remembering that Dave Peloquin sang it, I contacted him with a request for a recording of it.  He promptly complied by sending me a cassette recording of Jim Mageean’s album, and so it was Mageean’s version that ended up on the Roast Beef CD, where the song receives a fairly traditional treatment, sung unaccompanied with a six-man chorus[23].  Because I had never committed Peloquin’s verses to memory I was unaware that the version I learned was different.  This made for more folk process fun once the CD was released.


When one has boxes full of new CDs filling up a corner of one’s basement, one is eager to get them into the hands of discerning listeners.  For a niche recording like this one, those listeners are a challenge to find.  One marketing idea I had was to see if the HMS Rose, a replica 18th-century Royal Navy frigate then based in Bridgeport, CT, would be willing to add it to their slop chest.  The ship’s captain, Richard Bailey, agreed to make the CD available to his passengers, and placed a remarkably tiny order.  That would most likely have been the end of the line, except for the happy coincidence that a Hollywood production company was just then looking for an 18th-century frigate to use in a movie.  Rose was cast in the part, and Captain Bailey sailed through the Panama Canal and up to San Diego, with at least one copy of the Roast Beef CD still in the ship’s stores.


About this time, I received a call from Dave Peloquin, who announced that he had discovered that there was an error in Jim Mageean’s recording of the song.  He then proceeded to share with me the “correct” version of the first verse, which went like this:


Safe and sound back home again let the waters roar, Jack.
One last tune in glad refrain let our voices soar, Jack.


Asked about the source of this he was vague and uncertain, but was sure he could locate it.  Knowing him to be a trusty source of information about nautical music, I began singing the song with this first verse, convinced that Mageean must have experienced a lapse of memory during his recording session; the first verse of his version is the only one, after all, in which the first line is repeated.  This red herring, however, almost led to a lawsuit once the song made its film debut.



Film:  The Road to Hollywood


Fox Studios purchased the frigate HMS Rose in 2000, and she was fitted out in San Diego and renamed HMS Surprise, so she could star in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.  In an e-mail[24], Captain Bailey – who was hired to sail the ship during the filming – told me that he had given Peter Weir, the film’s director, a copy of the Roast Beef of Old England CD. 


It has been a lot more difficult uncovering information about the song’s path from this point on.  There seems to be much more information available on what happened to the song between 1860 and 2000 than during the months of shooting the movie.  It must come down to a case of knowing the right people, which I don’t, because I’ve been unable to connect with anyone involved in the film who could provide an account about how the song reached the ears of the actors who sang it on camera. 


What is known is that in a scene in the movie, set in the captain’s cabin during a dinner for his officers, the song is sung by the actors portraying those officers, led by Robert Pugh as Sailing Master Allen.  Thus we know that Russell Crowe, Max Perkis, Chris Larkin, James D’Arcy, and Paul Bettany learned at least two verses of the song.  These verses are the first two of the Mageean version, which also is the version that appears on Roast Beef of Old England. 


You can imagine the feeling of excitement I experienced, sitting in the movie theatre and hearing the song.  I felt certain that I had contributed in this small way to the making of the film.  Jim Mageean himself had a bit of a shock; this is how he described the experience in an e-mail[25]:  “I'd completely forgotten about [the song]… when alone in my local cinema one day, imagine my surprise when Russell Crowe and company suddenly started singing it.” 


Mr. Peloquin’s insistence that Mageean’s version was not original also contributed to my feeling of certainty that it was the Roast Beef recording upon which the studio based the scene:  since my version was Jim’s version and that’s what they sang in the movie, they must have gotten it from my CD, since I reasoned that it was extremely unlikely that anyone concerned with the film had found Mageean’s original LP (at this time I had not yet found the song in print).  At this point attorneys of my acquaintance suggested a lawsuit to claim some sort of infringement of my rights to the arrangement of the song.  There apparently exists in the world of intellectual property law a device called a “slap suit” that is used in such situations to get a settlement out of the studio.  Wisely, I ignored their advice.  Then, in the course of researching this paper I prompted Mr. Peloquin at long last to search out the source of his “correct” version.  As he put it in an e-mail[26]:  “I know where my version of the first verse of Yer Old Shipmate came from...I wrote it!”



Timeline and Touchstones:  Who and When


The song has reached a pinnacle rarely attained by a traditional sailor song:  heard by millions of people all the world over.  In order to remind us of the people who played important roles in making that happen, here is a timeline of the song’s journey.


  1. Naval Instructor Richard Creagh Saunders wrote the song in 1860
  2. Sir John Knox Laughton, Professor of Modern History, King's College London, learned the song from Saunders between 1860 and 1864
  3. James Runciman, Deptford school teacher, learned the song from Saunders in 1864 or 1865
  4. Sir Charles Harding Firth, Regius Professor of Modern History, Oxford, published the song in 1908
  5. Sir Richard Runciman Terry, choirmaster of Westminster Cathedral, arranged and published the song in 1931
  6. Jim Mageean, Tyneside folksinger, recorded the song in 1978
  7. Dave Peloquin, Rhode Island lithographer, performed the song, starting in 1989
  8. Jerry Bryant, Massachusetts insurance salesman, recorded the song in 2000
  9. Richard Bailey, Connecticut sea captain, gave a recording of the song to movie director Peter Weir in 2000
  10. Peter Weir, Australian film director, included the song, and Russell Crowe et al sang it, in the movie in 2001




For a 150-year old song, Don’t forget your old shipmate has had a remarkably short trip from 1860 to 2010; there are just ten names on the list of its acolytes – that’s one for every 15 years of the song’s existence.  Yet each one of those ten people changed the song in some way, moved it along, helped it evolve.  Think about that:  if these changes happened with such a relatively untouched song, how much greater has been the effect of the folk process on songs that dozens or scores of people have handled.  And yet the essence of such songs endures through everything that is done to them.  That’s how it is with good songs – they can take anything and still come through.


There are names to be added to the above list:  the people who will take up this song in the future.  Perhaps at the 180th annual Mystic Seaport Symposium on Music of the Sea someone will update the story of Old Shipmate, adding the next 150 years of history.  Since we can’t wait until then, let’s raise our voices now in tribute to Richard Saunders and all the transmitters, publishers and performers of this song.  Please join me.


            Don’t forget your old shipmate as recorded by Jim Mageean



Safe and sound at home again, let the waters roar, Jack.

Safe and sound at home again, let the waters roar, Jack.


Long we’ve tossed on the rolling main, now we’re safe ashore, Jack.

Don’t forget yer old shipmate, faldee raldee raldee raldee rye-eye-doe!



Since we sailed from Plymouth Sound, four years gone, or nigh, Jack.

Was there ever chummies, now, such as you and I, Jack?




We have worked the self-same gun, quarterdeck division.

Sponger I and loader you, through the whole commission.




Oftentimes have we laid out, toil nor danger fearing,

Tugging out the flapping sail to the weather earring.




When the middle watch was on and the time went slow, boy,

Who could choose a rousing stave, who like Jack or Joe, boy?




There she swings, an empty hulk, not a soul below now.

Number seven starboard mess misses Jack and Joe now.




But the best of friends must part, fair or foul the weather.

Hand yer flipper for a shake, now a drink together.

Chorus, bis.









Adkins, R. & L., 2008:  Jack Tar: The extraordinary lives of ordinary seamen in Nelson’s navy, Abacus, London.

Barnett, L. , 2001:  Education and training in the Royal Navy 1756-1918 : http://www.barnettmaritime.co.uk/education.htm

Dickinson, H.W., 2007: Educating the Royal Navy: Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century education for officers, Routledge, New York.


Firth, C.H., ed., 1908:  Naval Songs and Ballads, Navy Records Society, vol. XXXIII.


Index of 19th Century Naval Vessels and a few of their movements:  http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~pbtyc/18-1900/Index.html


Kelly, J, 2004:  Curran, John Philpot (1750–1817)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press:  http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/6950


Lambert, A., 1998:  The Foundations of Naval History:  John Knox Laughton, the Royal Navy, and the Historical Profession, Chatham Publishing, London.


Navy Records Society: http://www.navyrecords.org.uk/


Royal Naval Officers’ Service Records (ADM196): http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documentsonline/navy.asp


Terry, R.R., ed., 1931:  Salt Sea Ballads, J. Curwen & Sons, London.


Victorian London:  http://www.victorianlondon.org/education/royalnavalschool.htm


Wikipedia:  www.wikipedia.org

[1] Firth, C.H., ed. 1908:  Naval Songs and Ballads, Navy Records Society, vol. XXXIII.

[2] Royal Naval Officers’ Service Records (ADM196) [accessed April, 2010, from http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documentsonline/navy.asp]

[3] Dickinson, H.W. 2007: Educating the Royal Navy: Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century education for officers, Routledge, New York.

[4] Information about ships obtained from the website Index of 19th Century Naval Vessels and a few of their movements [http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~pbtyc/18-1900/Index.html]


[5] Merriam-Webster Online [http://www.merriam-webster.com/]

[6] Cruchley's London in 1865 : A Handbook for Strangers [excerpt accessed May 4, 2010 from http://www.victorianlondon.org/education/royalnavalschool.htm].

[7]  Illustrated London News, 1843 [excerpt accessed May 4, 2010 from http://www.victorianlondon.org/ education/royalnavalschool.htm]

[8] Barnett, L. 2001:  Education and training in the Royal Navy 1756-1918 [accessed May 3, 2010, from http://www.barnettmaritime.co.uk/education.htm].

[9] Firth,  p.363.

[10] Lambert, A. 1998:  The Foundations of Naval History:  John Knox Laughton, the Royal Navy, and the Historical Profession, Chatham Publishing, London, p.30.


[11] Navy Records Society website: http://www.navyrecords.org.uk/

[12] Firth, p.cxiv

[13] Terry, R.R., ed. 1931:  Salt Sea Ballads, J. Curwen & Sons, London.

[14] Bis is a musical term meaning “repeat”

[15] The members of Tarry Trousers were Jim Mageean, Anni Fentiman (then Anni Mageean), Alan Fitzsimmons, Mike Douglas.

[16] Greenwich Village Records GVR203.

[17] To the author, January 20, 2010.

[18] January 21, 2010.

[19] E-mail to the author, January 20, 2010.

[20] E-mail to the author May 19, 2010.

[21] The members of the band were Dave and Cindy Peloquin, Everett Brown, Alan Bradbury.

[22] E-mail to the author, April 15, 2010.

[23] Known as Starboard Mess, its members were Eric Bryant, Sheldon Campbell, Peter Contrastano, Cliff Haslam, Geoff Kaufman, Payton Turpin.

[24] To the author in late 2000.

[25] To the author, January 20, 2010.

[26] To the author, April 15, 2010.