GREENLAND WHALE FISHERIES
“Greenland Whale Fisheries” is a traditional sea shanty. In most of the versions collected
from oral sources, the song opens up giving a date for the events that it describes (usually
between 1823 and 1853). However, the song is actually older than this and a form of it
was published as a ballad before 1725.
The song tells of a whaling expedition that leaves for Greenland. The lookout spots a
“whalefish“, and harpoon boats are launched. However, the whale strikes the boat with its
tail, capsizing it, and several men are killed. The captain grieves over losing his prey, but
especially for having lost his men. He then orders the ship to sail for home, calling
Greenland a “dreadful place.”
Like most traditional songs, “Greenland Whale Fisheries” exists in different versions.
Some change details (such as the date of the expedition), and others add or remove
verses. Perhaps due to the wide influence of Moby–Dick, some modern versions,
including the one recorded by The Pogues for their album “Red Roses for Me”, flip the
captain’s expression of grief to make him regret losing his catch even more than losing
his crew. In the version popularized by The Weavers and Peter, Paul and Mary, a shanty
recorded by Alan Lomax from a Barbadian fisherman is appended, which begins, “When
the whale gets strike, and the line run down, and the whale makes a flunder with her tail”.
When the whale get strike and the line runs out
And the whale makes a flunder with its tail
And the boat capsized and I lost my darlin’ man
No more, no more Greenland for you, brave boys
No more, no more Greenland for you
Twas in eighteen hundred and fifty three,
on June the thirteenth day
That our gallant ship her anchor weighed
And for Greenland sailed away, brave boys,
And for Greenland sailed away.
The lookout on the crosstree stood
With a spyglass in his hand
There’s a whale, there’s a whale, there’s a whalefish, he cried
And she blows at every span, brave boys
She blows at every span!
Well we struck that whale and the line played out
But she gave a flunder with her tail
And the boat capsized and four men were drowned
And we never caught that whale,
We never caught that whale.