Joe Danks: Seaspeak review – a partial slice of maritime history

One of the more bizarre results of lockdown was a TikTok-driven craze for sea shanties, bringing millions of hits for antique tales of whale-hunting and sail-hauling – easy, communal singalongs to alleviate gruelling work. There are, alas, no shanties on Seaspeak, the result of Joe Danks’s 12-month residency at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, though there are instrumental hornpipes, quadrilles and step dancing. Elsewhere, Danks’s sturdy, melodic voice is variously joined by guitar, bodhrán, fiddle, accordion and harp.

The album’s 10 tracks offer a slice of maritime history, though one skewed away from hardships well documented in folk tradition; tedium, scurvy, press gangs, cruel captains, capricious mermaids and angry whales. Instead, we are served John Masefield’s soft-centred poetry, Ewan MacColl’s Sweet Thames Flow Softly, and hunters’ favourite John Peel, which was sung on Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition but sits oddly here.

Danks pays tribute to the dead of 20th-century sea battles on 308 and Jutland 1916, and a swelling version of Man of War honours Nelson and Turner’s painting of the battle of Trafalgar. Of the maritime slave trade there is scant sign, despite the museum’s impressive Atlantic gallery – an opportunity missed. Worthy but underwhelming.


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