Cover of Rogue's Gallery album, a pirate abandoned on a beach.

Rogue’s Gallery – three centuries of musical glory

One of those Facebook memes came to me – your favourite albums. I had to bypass the Incredible String Band, the Beatles and King Crimson and pick these two double albums, the ones I consistently most enjoy listening to – Rogue’s Gallery and Son of Rogue’s Gallery.

What’s Rogue’s Gallery?

A double album, released in 2006, of ‘pirate ballads, sea songs and chanteys’ performed by a wide range of left-of-field artists. It was followed in 2013 by Son of Rogue’s Gallery, another selection of the same scope. Between them they run to a staggering 79 songs, and barely a bad track among them.

Pirate ballads are, as the name suggests, songs and stories about pirates. Sea songs are songs about life at sea, or the lovers left behind by sailors. Chanteys (or shanties) are working songs, call-and-response matching the rhythms of hauling on lines to move the massive sails of sailing ships.

The story

The series is the brainchild of producer Hall Willner.  He was turned on to this music by hearing Blood Red Roses on a radio show.

There was one song, “Blood Red Roses,” which was fascinating. Accompanied by the sound of chains, it sounded like a bunch of drunken mental patients singing “Go down ya blood red roses – Go Down!” It was a powerful and endless song and, though it was over 35 years since that night, I was able to sing most of it (in 2005).

With backing and constant support from director Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp, who acted as executive producers, he started to assemble songs and singers.

Research in record shops yielded 400 songs. They came from all all over the world bearing the characteristic music of their ports of origin – Liverpool, South Australia, Cape Cod. Melodies, phrases and entire verses that would find their way into folk songs and even pop songs. He also found songbooks of unrecorded songs, sometimes just lyrics.

He then set about finding musicians and a studio. New York-based Akron/Family became the ‘house band’ for a huge range of artists who who came in over two days to record songs. The first to record were Akron/Family, Baby Gramps, Robin Holcomb and Bill Frisell.

We started with an approach that became the norm for the project – playing a bunch of the sea chanteys – picking one – learning it and recording it all within a few hours. There also appeared people in the studio who seemed to wander in, but, if they wanted to sing, so let them – almost everyone there led in a chantey or two – by the end of the second day it seemed like the group had been together for years and it was sad to break it up. I left Seattle with nine songs.

He repeated the experience in London, drawing in people like Nick Cave, Warren Ellis, Richard Thompson, Bryan Ferry and Kate St John, and other artists with days in Dublin and New York. In the end he had 60 songs, 43 of which made the first double album.

It was critically acclaimed and he put on a couple of live gigs with some of the artists.

Son of …

In 2013 he returned to the project to make use of the remaining recordings and add some more. Son of Rogue’s Gallery brought back Nick Cave and Richard Thompson, and added Tom Waits, Keith Richards, Patti Smith, Michael Stipe and Iggy Pop.

About a year ago I secretly thought we would never finish. As easy as volume 1 was to coordinate, this was the opposite, but it is a very different record than volume 1. This one seems…happier? Not as much about torture, sodomy and death, which will disappoint some but, we don’t need to repeat ourselves do we?

While you might expect grandstanding and an eagerness to make your mark with a various artists project like this, the artists are all sufficiently secure in their own egos to give themselves wholeheartedly to the songs with love and respect.

So what does it sound like?

Mostly loose, rowdy, rambunctuous. Sometimes tender and touching. What makes it great for driving is you can sing along to almost all of it. These songs were made to be sung along to. Some of the backing is heavy on fiddles and mandolins but much of it is straight acoustic or electric rock. Son of … veers into more modern sounds.  My musical education was in Ayr folk club and the school folk club which a teacher taught us lovely slow ballads where we were encouraged to find harmonies and pitch in. It was glorious, and these songs take me back to that feeling.

The first song, Cape Cod Girls by Baby Gramps, is pretty out-there and I wondered on first play what I’d bought. The second,  Mingulay Boat Song by Richard Thompson brings it into more familiar territory.


My highlights

This is hard but today’s selection is, from Rogue’s Gallery:

Fire Down Below – Nick Cave cursing and swearing in his most lascivious way while the crew wail ‘With a way hey hee hi ho’ in a way you wouldn’t want to hear outside your window at night.

Bully in the Alley – Three Pruned Men. Recorded in Dublin, it sounds like the most drunken track on the album, the drummer trying to catch up with the singer’s hilarious timing.

Dead Horse – Robin Holcomb. A sailing ship tradition was ‘paying off the dead horse’ on payday, when a horse effigy was thrown overboard. This is a restrained but steely rendition by an American lady I’m just beginning to learn more about. My current favourite

The Good Ship Venus – Loudon Wainwright: a lot of us know this song from school bus trips. Utter filth, delivered with banjos and joy.

Hog-eye Man – Martin Carthy. Wonderful counter-rhythms between the words and the beat tumble across this song, a dismissal of canal boat sailors by deep water sailors.

Shallow Brown – Sting. A beautifully sentimental chantey delivered with grace by Sting

From Son of Rogue’s Gallery:

Sam’s Gone Away by Robyn Hitchcock – a good one to sing along to, as only one line changes from verse to verse

Pirate Jenny – Shilpa Ray and Nick Cave – one of the highlights of the whole four CDs, a blistering performance of the 1932 Brecht/Weil story. Nina Simone’s done a great version, but this tops even Nina.

Tom’s Gone to Hilo – Gavin Friday and Shannon McNally – sums up what I love about folk music, when you can join in with harmonies on repeating refrains

Shenandoah – Tom Waits and Keith Richards. Keith plays bottleneck. Tom plays Tom majestically.

Bamboo (River Come Down) – Beth Orton. This is where I first heard the song that the Heaven Sent covered on In Another Life.

(These are links to Amazon – if you buy the album I get half a cup of coffee!)

Speaking of In Another Life, if you’d like to get our version of Bamboo along with ten other great songs for FREE, check this out.

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