Fo’c’s’le Firkins – Shanties And Songs Of The Sea

Image courtesy of The Original Fo’c’s’le Firkins

This article also appeared in edition 151 of Trad And Now magazine in September 2022.

Here in south west Australia, and in niche but growing enclaves around the country and the world, many of us are starting to get a little excited for the upcoming Albany International Folk ‘n’ Shanty Festival which takes place from Friday 30 September to Sunday 2 October 2022.

“From fireside folk sessions and concerts, to full blown pub shanty singing, from tales of pirates, whales and shipwrecks; the Albany International Folk ‘n Shanty Festival turns historic Albany/Kinjarling into a playground of maritime culture.” –

Albany may not lay claim to the most remote festival venue on the continent, but there would be few that could beat it. Albany is 3,335kms by road from Melbourne, 3,864kms from Sydney, and about a five hour drive south from Perth.

But more of the festival itself in a future edition. I mention it here for context to say I’ve been booked in to attend for a while, so when news of a CD launch of sea shanties and songs of the sea* bobbed up, my interest was already piqued.

* There’s a difference between the two. All shall be revealed hereunder.

The Original Fo’c’s’le Firkins launched their live CD in Fremantle at the Navy Club on Saturday 20 August 2022. It was a nice piece of musical recording symmetry as the album was recorded in 2021 at the same venue.

Band members were understandably taking any chance to plug the CD and gig around Fremantle in the lead-up, and group member Jon Cope spent some time during ‘Folking Around’ on Radio Fremantle to talk in detail about the recordings’ evolution and background.

Normally, I would have been one of the interviewers, however, I was struck down by a debilitating (non-plague) illness that week, so my colleagues of the airwaves manned the bridge and took the wheel: Frank Hodges (asking the lion’s share of the questions) and Alan Dawson (on the panel, knobs, buttons, and light comic relief).

Image courtesy of The Original Fo’c’s’le Firkins

Frank Hodges: This is the third CD from the Firkins?

Jon Cope: Depends if you include the cassette tapes!

FH: Ah yes, there were cassette tapes. I’ve got one at home.

So this particular CD: you had who editing you, helping you?

JC: Yes, this is live at the Fremantle Navy Club. The Original Fo’c’s’le Firkins (for those who don’t know) was established back in 1985 for the National Folk Festival that was held in Perth that year.

And it’s been going on and off for almost 40 years.

Last year we did a show for the Sirens, which is the female fan club of the Fremantle Dockers – the Fremantle football club. We were booked to do a show for all these women. It was a bit like The Full Monty, but we kept our clothes on!

Terry Hill is the guy that does the sound in the Fremantle Navy Club and has done an album with us before, so I asked Terry if he could record everything – and the audience. And we took all those tracks to Pete Grandison from Shanghai Twang Studio, and Pete’s been slowly working on it with us over the past year.

We did some more live recording things. We went back into the Fremantle Navy Club and double-tracked our choruses, which is not unusual these days.

Image courtesy of The Original Fo’c’s’le Firkins

FH: Tell me: are the Firkins going to the National [Folk Festival] next year with all this publicity and the fame?

JC: I don’t know. It’s quite incredible that the band’s been going this long, on and off, and we’ve got the energy to make a new recording. That’s pretty epic for us.

FH: I dare say this CD will be on sale down at the Albany Shanty Festival?

JC: Yes. The Albany Shanty Festival is brilliant. The whole shanty renaissance around the world in the last few years – it’s incredible. And for the Firkins – who started in 1985 and then reformed with the original lineup in 2013 – for the last decade we’ve regrouped and we’ve been riding this wave of the shanty revival.

And hats off to the other bands like The Lost Quays and The Albany Shantymen – great bands, great energy, and the whole initiative around the Albany Folk’n’Shanty Festival is just brilliant.

I just love the festival. When it first came up, I thought we’d all be singing the same songs. But we’re not. We’re all singing very different songs. We’ve all got different approaches.

The other thing I love about it is that it’s free. Nobody gets paid. We all make this huge commitment just because we love the music, to drive five hours to Albany, stay for the weekend, and then drive five hours back again.

I think that just shows the impact of this music in our community. It’s great.

I love that when a new festival starts up, there’s a lot of energy around and a lot of enthusiasm. 2020 didn’t happen because of Covid, so there was a lot of enthusiasm to reconnect everyone last year.

And I like that I see a lot of people I used to see back at the old Toodyay Folk Festival performing at this festival. And there’s people of all ages performing there.

Image courtesy of The Original Fo’c’s’le Firkins

FH: And then you had the chance to do your own thing like you did last year as well. A few people that were with a group had their own little sessions.

JC: Yeah. The thing about the Firkins is that we started as a ten man shanty band back in 1985, and a few have passed on to ‘Fiddler’s Green’, some have retired, and some have pulled out for health reasons. We’ve still got five originals, but we just fit.

If you’d told me back 40 years ago when I was still a teenager that these guys would be coming around to my place and rehearsing once a month, I just wouldn’t have believed it. And we’re so locked in with the sonic levels of the band; who’s singing high and who’s singing low, and phrasing and so forth.

The thing about shanties is they’re not meant to be too pretty and orchestrated; it’s work songs, but you start locking in together.

FH: You say ‘sea shanty’ but you can get songs of the sea, and you can get shanties which were for different people on a boat, depending on what job they did or what area they worked on a boat.

JC: That’s right. So, the different work songs had different roles and rhythms, and they also went for different lengths of time. Like ‘Hanging Johnny’ which was for pulling up sails.

There was a book by Stan Hugill about shanties – this was before the internet. If you had read the book, you had the knowledge.

Image courtesy of The Original Fo’c’s’le Firkins

FH: I did notice that although there’s some traditional, there’s people like Stan Rogers and Tom Lewis, going back to the original shanty men.

JC: The whole tradition of shanties being those work songs from that era, and then in the folk scene they come back. I think what’s happened and particularly in Western Australia is you’ve got a lot of groups singing sea shanties. I think there’s about 12 shanty groups now.

And this is very much driven by the Albany Shanty Festival and Grizz [Garry Greenwald, The Albany Shantymen] who’s got that one going and encouraged a lot of groups to get started all over Western Australia in Bunbury, Mandurah, and Dunsborough, and Geraldton.

It’s fantastic. What it means is that you kind of have to lock in your own sound. You have to know what your band is. Some are writing new shanties referencing local maritime stories, and others are focused more on traditional shanties.

The Firkins were influenced by Kimber’s Men (UK) when they came out to that first festival in 2019. We bought all their CDs and realised that they started out as a big raggle, taggle bunch of guys singing shanties, and then over the years, they got more refined. And the group that came in 2019 was a quartet with this phenomenal driving bass singer, John Bromley, plus really good harmonies. It’s not barber shop; it’s not pretty harmonies. Just good folk harmonies. And that influenced us.

The Original Fo’c’s’le Firkins at Fremantle Navy Club, Saturday 19 August 2022

So on this CD, we recorded it live for the Sirens gig last October, and then we took all those tracks and we re-recorded the choruses so we’ve got all our parts in stereo. A bit like the ABBA effect of having two singers singing the same part, and that really fattens out the sound, especially in the choruses.

We’ve put that all back together again with Pete Grandison adding the song intros on the front and the audience reactions at the end, and it’s come up pretty well.

It’s very accurate for what we sound like at the moment, and given that we’ve been around for a while, it’s great to have something documented of how we sound.

We were talking about traditional shanties, but we’ve also got some original tracks in this one, including Greg Hastings’s track ‘Sail’, which he wrote and recorded previously. So we’ve mixed it up with traditional shanties but also some original tracks.

MC Bernard Carney and The Original Fo’c’s’le Firkins at Fremantle Navy Club, Saturday 19 August 2022

We should acknowledge it was Peter Bugden who started the Fo’c’s’le Firkins probably back in 1984. Because Peter was running the Peninsula Folk Club in Maylands at the time. I was first taken to the Peninsula folk club by Francis Gill, a former merchant seaman and folk singer, as a teenager in the late 1970s, and Francis would sing sea shanties. He was a semi-regular performer at the club, as were the Hastings family, and Tony Henry was singing and Paul Presbury.

But it was Pete’s idea – because the National was coming up – to do a shanty workshop. So Francis and Peter together cooked up this idea for the Fo’c’s’le Firkins – they named the band together. They contacted singers that Pete had seen at the folk club, and it all sort of started that summer. The National was held at the University of WA over Easter in April 1985.

And there’s a photo on the album: that’s the morning of the workshop, and that’s about 8.30am. You can see that some of the guys are drinking beer. I was told, as a teenager, “That’s the first thing you do, Jon!”

Alan Dawson: You look like you’d been drinking some beer!

JC: Neville probably passed me a beer. I think we drank Emu Export back then.

Phil Beck at the Fremantle Navy Club, Saturday 19 August 2022

The original lineup was Francis Gill, Peter Bugden, Greg Hastings, Peter ‘Murf’ Murphy, my brother Steve Cope and myself, plus Tony Henry, Paul Presbury, Neville Threlfall and Bryan Totterdell.

So that was the ten guys that started it, and we acknowledge all those guys on the CD, and we also acknowledge all the guys that came along the way: Digger Wilson, Fred Carter, Alan Ralph, Terry Reddy, Bob Eden, and Maurice Archinald.

We had this burst of activity because after 1985 National festival, the America’s Cup was coming and in 1986 they had the preliminary Luis Vuitton Cup yacht races. And it was a huge time in Fremantle. People coming in from all over the world, this maritime theme. We were getting so many gigs.

It was great. We were singing in all the pubs and the functions, we sang for [Alan] Bondy’s things. And then the America’s Cup followed in 1987, then in 1988 there was all that Bicentennial stuff going on, and the band toured Australia following the tall ships.

Before the gig as the backing chorus vocalists gathered: The Original Fo’c’s’le Firkins at Fremantle Navy Club, Saturday 19 August 2022

Murf kept it going until about the mid-2000s, then it stopped and had a pause for a while. Then in 2013 the original group reunited for a charity concert for Little Folk at the Maida Vale amphitheatre.

450 people turned up and we were a bit shocked. We thought we’ve got the start of something re-emerging. So we’ve kept going since then.

So it’s a pretty good story. Almost 40 years ago, a bunch of strangers all sing together, and here we are, all these decades later.

FH: Still going strong.

JC: Hopefully.

We hope people come and support the new album launch because we don’t know how many more of these we’ll be doing. If you’ve appreciated the voices of people like Greg Hastings, Peter Bugden, and Murf and Steve [Cope] and I, then come along.

View from the rear stalls. A word to the wise: avoid the non-alcoholic wine.

Postscript: Just under two weeks after this interview on Radio Fremantle, The Original Fo’c’s’le Firkins launch of ‘Live At The Fremantle Navy Club’ took place as advertised at the Fremantle Navy Club. It was a marvellous night. MC Bernard Carney was in sparkling form, and Phil Beck was at his usual sardonic, laconic, and hilarious best.

And the Firkins were in fine voice as were the audience who needed little urging to join in on the choruses. The sound was flawless thanks to Pete Grandison and Terry Hill, and at some stage no doubt some film of the evening will surface as the Fo’c’s’le Firkins are now planning a short documentary film.

It was the culmination of a long-term project for the group, and a tantalising teaser for those of us heading down to Albany at the end of September.

For more information on the Fo’c’s’le Firkins and get your hands on their CD, see their Facebook page at: The Original Fo’c’s’le Firkins.

Post Postscript: Since the interview and album launch, Jon Cope was announced as the new Artistic Director of the FolkWorld Inc Fairbridge Festival for 2023-2024.

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