The Making of ‘Nothing Like Pilchards’

March 25, 2021 - By 
Nothing Like Pilchards Song Banner

Despite the latest boom in Sea Shanty interest they have been a regular feature of the folk session that our resident soprano, Laura Featherstone has taken part in for many years.  The annual Sea Shanty festival in Falmouth is also a very popular event every year, so they have always been big business down in Cornwall.  However it’s fair to say that the same favourites are sung often, so Laura thought she would try and create something new!

Laura writes:-

I started researching old Cornish poems to see if I could find inspiration relating to the saying “Mackerel sky, mackerel sky, never long wet, never long dry”. While looking for that the subject of fishing came up and I came across the saying: “It’s always declared betwixt the two poles, there’s nothing like pilchards for saving of souls”. This intrigued me and I knew immediately that was going to be my hook. It relates to the fact that during lent, meat was not eaten by Italian Catholic communities so they relied on the salted pilchards being shipped from Cornwall to Europe. However as prosperity increased the demand for the fish declined. The industry which had lasted centuries and which supported thousands of families in the South West came to an end when the last factory shutdown in 2005 and the salting and pressing traditions was lost forever, only being kept alive by an exhibit in a museum. It’s believed that the best year was 1871 when 16,000 tons were exported because although salted pilchards were not a favourite dish for locals they were popular in Italy with pasta and polenta for many years. These days the only pilchards you can buy are the ones in a tin with tomato sauce or the re-branded fresh ‘Cornish Sardines’, but they are not quite the same!

Here’s a health to the Pope,
And may he repent,
And lengthen by six months
The term of his Lent.
It’s always declared
Betwixt the two poles,
There’s nothing like pilchards
For saving of souls.

Craig writes:-

Laura always brings a tune with the words she writes and they are usually perfect. This one was good but needed a little lifting here and there so we collaborated
on a new tune, working on each note until it sounded just right.  We wanted to make it sound a bit like an old shanty that had been around a while – maybe you can let us know if we succeeded!  The first version I wrote was for TTBB but we don’t believe Shanty singing should be confined to men only so we immediately recorded an SATB version too.  We are indebted to Stephen Lawry and the Mousehole Male Voice Choir who checked the veracity of the lyrics for us – they even have members who used to fish out of Newlyn so they know their stuff!

Once we had written the song we thought why not join everyone on the merry video bandwagon and give one a go? We have as one of our co-directors the amazing Gitika Partington whose lockdown videos have become almost legendary.  So she agreed to edit together our efforts to see what it looked like.  None of us live anywhere near the sea so we had to resort to some light (fairly obvious) subterfuge.  See what you think.  Maybe we should have a Choir Community virtual Shanty Festival??

You can download the sheet music and learning tracks for the song here.

  • I love it Beautiful singing I’d love to share with my son who is living in Mevagissey and his neighbour is in the Mevagissey male voice choir. What a lot of work you’ve done
    Anna Pritchard (Wendy Sergeants choir)

  • Peter Docherty. [Navy Larks - Salisbury] March 27, 2021 at 10:59 pm

    Excellent song – very clever and beautifully sung. I also wrote a song about Pilchards a couple of years ago which had it’s first public performances at Falmouth in 2019. It’s essentially a comic song and the words therefore don’t conflict or compete with your song in any way. I could forward a video from a local performance in 2019 if interested.

  • I so enjoyed this wonderful ode to the pilchard and the clever catchy tune – a great collaboration, and beautifully sung. But of course special congratulations to my nephews Piers and Craig, of whom I am inordinately proud, and to Laura of course. I am not quite sure how to ‘share’ it with the Norfolk family though, so may need some instructions. Of course we are lucky to live VERY near the sea, and our almost local ‘Shantymen’ of Sheringham often do the rounds of pubs and celebrations up here in North Norfolk, so we are serious shanty fans.

    • Hi Janie, thanks for your lovely message. Just get in touch if you want to know how to share the music more widely! Perhaps the Shantymen would like some copies? 🙂

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