Monday, June 04, 2007

Lord Franklin

British Rear Admiral Sir John Franklin, born on April 16, 1786, discovered the Northwest Passage, but disappeared in the course of the exploration. After serving (1836-43) as governor of Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), Franklin was sent in search of the Northwest Passage in 1845. His ships, Erebus and Terror, were last seen in Baffin Bay on July 25 or 26, 1845. When nothing was heard from the party, no fewer than 40 expeditions were sent to find him. In 1854, Dr. John Rae of the Hudson's Bay Company found the first proof that Franklin's vessels had sunk. In 1859, Leopold McClintock, commanding Fox, a search vessel outfitted by Lady Franklin, discovered a cairn that revealed Sir John had died on June 11, 1847, in King William's Land and had, in fact, found the Northwest Passage. Further expeditions were sent to the Arctic, but they simply confirmed the earlier discoveries.
-- from Wikipedia

Sometime during my high school years I discovered the traditional folk songs of the British Isles. While almost everybody else I knew was debating the various and sundry interpretations of “Stairway to Heaven,” I and a few of my friends were checking out bands such as Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Planxty, and Pentangle, who were singing songs that were centuries old and tarting them up with a backbeat and electric guitars. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, try to think of roll ‘n roll versions of “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” or “Home on the Range.” Except instead of musical American cheese, think of good songs featuring meaningful lyrics, great storytelling, and heartbreakingly beautiful melodies.

In preparation for a review for Paste, I’ve been listening to a recently released box set of material from Pentangle, some of which is known to me, and some of which is not. But I’m discovering all over again how much I love this music. There’s a good reason why these songs have survived for hundreds of years; they sock you in the gut. They touch on themes that still sound all too relevant and contemporary. In this case, death, and grieving over the death of friends, never seems to go out of style, and our children’s children’s children will still be making up new songs that will simply be variations on a theme. This particular Pentangle song is from the early 1850s – relatively recent as Trad material goes. But it sounds as ancient as David’s psalms, and as contemporary as a downed Apache helicopter in Baghdad.

‘Twas homeward bound one night on the deep
Swinging in my hammock I fell asleep
I dreamed a dream and I thought it true
Concerning Franklin and his gallant crew

With a hundred seamen he sailed away
To the frozen ocean in the month of May
To seek a passage around the pole
Where we poor seamen do sometimes go

Through cruel hardships they vainly strove

Their ships on mountains of ice was drove
Only the Eskimo in his skin canoe
Was the only one that ever came through

In Baffin Bay where the whale fishes blow
The fate of Franklin no man may know
The fate of Franklin no tongue can tell
Lord Franklin along with his sailors do dwell

And now my burden it gives me pain
For my long lost Franklin I would cross the main
Ten thousand pounds would I freely give
To say on earth that my Franklin do live
-- Traditional, “Lord Franklin”


abelseth said...

You sound much like me, though i am a little your senior (61 in July) and my one wife several yrs my junior, and I have raised 5 beautiful children all in various stages of education and "advancement"...

Apreciate your blog on Lord Franklin; I spent a summer (1967 i think) in the very north Arctic (near Isachsen, on Elef Ringnes Island) and it was an amazing experience. A little different in those days, traveling up there compared with today.

John Abelseth

John McCollum said...

I think "Rear Admiral" is a funny, slightly off-color title.