Tucker, James

Singer

Collection date: Jul 1914

Area: Bristol


James Tucker at Merchant Venturers Almshouse (1845-?):age 69, 5 sea shanties on 14 July 1914: The almshouse where James was living in the 1911 census (ref RG14/14879 schedule 173) was in King Street in the centre of Bristol. It was built in 1696 for convalescent and old sailors to see out their days after fever or blindness during service in the ships of the Bristol Slave Trade. There were 17 men and 12 widows accommodated in 1911. The building is still there and is a Grade II listed building. James Tucker was shown as ‘single aged 69’ in that census.

The 3 shanties sung by Tucker that Sharp selected for publication in his English Folk-Chanteys book (1914) were: ‘A Long Time Ago’ (FT3014), ‘Whisky’ (FT3016) and the familiar ‘What shall we do with a drunken sailor?’ (FT3017).

But another shanty is of great interest too, namely ‘The Dead Horse’ (FT3015) - click vwml link above. The first line is: ‘A poor old man, your horse will die’. In his notes from Tucker Sharp writes about the ceremony which deep sea sailors often enacted at the end of their first month at sea. After an initial payment at ‘signing on’, sailors would not be paid in their first month and this was called ‘working for the dead horse’. Then the ship’s carpenter would construct an effigy of a dead horse, using canvas and straw. After the song and a procession, the effigy would be hoisted over the foreyard, cut away and dropped into the sea. The final verse is: ‘But our old horse is dead and gone’. Sharp commented that James Tucker’s description of the ceremony exactly matched that of Mr Fleetwood Stileman of Weston-super-Mare, whom he visited the same day as he saw Tucker. In his Folk-Chantey book Sharp published 2 shanties collected back in April 1914 from John Short of Watchet ‘Dead Horse’ FT2884 and ‘Johnny come to Hilo’ (aka ‘Poor Old Man’) FT2880, both of which refer to this ceremony.

There were several James Tuckers baptised in Bristol in the 1840s and Sharp's singer was no doubt absent from censuses, being away at sea. No biographical details are therefore possible but the 1921 census may be helpful. A James Tucker, aged 74, died in Bristol October qr 1922 (ref 6a 241) and he was roughly of the right age (74). 

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