Book Review-‘A Sailor’s Life: The life and times of John Short of Watchet, 1839−1933’ by T. Brown

By David Jenkins, published November 2020


This is a fascinating account of the (remarkably long) life of the Watchet-born seafarer John Short, also known by his nickname of ‘Yankee Jack’. In many ways, there was nothing particularly unusual about his life, in that it followed a pattern of going to sea followed by thousands of young men born and brought up in coastal communities around the UK during the nineteenth century. Tom Brown has done an excellent job of tracing Short’s seafaring career, bearing in mind that his discharge certificates are long since lost. He has instead had to work his way back through crew lists held by a long list of repositories to provide us with a comprehensive account of a life at sea which commenced on board the local schooner Friends (of which his father was master) in 1853.

What singled John Short out, however, was the vast repertory of sea shanties that he had acquired in half a century at sea. This significant living musical archive was brought to the attention of the pioneer of English folk-song recording, Cecil Sharp, who was working in Somerset in the decade before 1914, and on a number of occasions between April and September that year he visited Watchet to hear John Short sing nearly 60 shanties−together with countless variations. Forty-six of these subsequently appeared in Sharp’s English Folk Chanteys (sic) published in December 1914…


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    Filed under: Other (Twentieth C) | Other (Nineteenth C)
    Subjects include: Art & Music | Biography

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