Introduced by Chris Koldeway

“The Press Gang (On Board A Man of War)” (Roud 662) is a song from the days when the British crown felt it could, in times of war, “press” into service anyone whom they deemed fit. (Or fit enough.) Gangs of Navy officers and Seamen would, in times of war, scour the English seaside towns, and gather up as many men as they needed. In some cases, this was done by “the book,” and other times, by less scrupulous methods. In fact, the impressment of American sailors was one of the issues that helped us to enter into the War of 1812. The Mainly Norfolk website, which is a great resource for British traditional music, quotes A.L. (Bert) Lloyd about this song:

“Rarer than a good song should be, this one. Sharp heard it, or three verses of it, in a Herefordshire workhouse (the workhouse was a great place to find singers in his day). Jack Moeran noted a fuller version at Winterton, Norfolk, and that’s the one Mike bases his performance on. Moeran’s singer was James Sutton, nicknamed “Old Larpin”, from whom the great Sam Larner learnt a boatload of songs.”

There are many wonderful versions of this song including those by Ewan MacColl, and Mike Waterson, but I first heard it from the magnificent singing of the late Roy Harris, singer of traditional songs, promoter of folk, supporter of budding singers, and life-long supporter of Nottingham Forest FC.

Sheet music for The Press Gang
Click the image for a link to a PDF of the notation

Roy sang this at the Lancaster Maritime Festival in the U.K., when my wife Joy Bennett and I were there, and I knew I needed to learn this song. I tracked Roy down, asked for the words, and with his genuine, welcoming grin took out a piece of paper and wrote down the words.

I noticed that the paper on which he was writing had some typed words, and some hand-written notation to “Shallow Brown,” a lovely sea chantey, and asked whether he might still need it. Roy casually mentioned that it was something “Bert” (A.L. Lloyd) had given him, and he knew the song now, so, “no,” he didn’t need it anymore.

The words—the ones that Roy wrote out, and what I know is on the back—now hang in a place of honor and remembrance in my studio at home. I look at them almost daily, and remember one of the kindest souls I’ve ever met. The last time Roy and I spoke, we were in Wales, and I gave Roy a call. He thanked me for putting the song on my CD, and was delighted that I had kept in “his” verse: “These Navy officers…”. I asked, “your verse?” “Oh, yes, that one was mine.”

Roy has now passed on to what is fast becoming an astounding “session” in the next world. I know that I, and many others, will miss him terribly here, but consider myself blessed for many gifts he left behind. Thank you, Roy.

Here’s Chris singing The Press Gang, from his CD Called Away:

Chris Koldewey, a public school music teacher by trade, has been singing folk music and sea music in particular since his early teens. He comes from a family rich in maritime traditions, and from an early age was exposed to a wide variety of folk music during his formative years on Long Island. He has played concerts and festivals in both the U.S. and the U.K., and has led workshops dealing with a variety of traditional music forms, and accompanies himself on a variety of instruments.

Chris has had a long association with the Chanteymen at Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut. Two of his greatest experiences were to Chantey up the anchor on board the Barque Picton Castle during his three-week stint on board her during the summer of 2009, and to sail and Chantey on board of the historic Charles W. Morgan—the only wooden whaler left in the world—in the summer of 2014.