"Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" opens with a pirate tyke standing at the gallows, stoically awaiting his fate. In the scant few moments before his death, the boy starts singing a haunting, lilting tune. One by one, other doomed pirates join in. The song they're singing -- "Hoist the Colors" -- is no seafaring standard, though: It was written for the film by veteran Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer. But if such a scene had taken place in real life, what kinds of songs might the pirates have chosen to sing?
A little online digging reveals a treasury of pirate ditties. Ex-Byrds singer and guitarist Roger McGuinn's Folk Den Web site has an archive of traditional seafaring songs that includes MP3 downloads as well as brief histories of each selection. My favorite is "Ranzo," the story of a shanghaied tailor.
A looser approach to the same material can be found on last year's "Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs and Chanteys," which was released on the Anti- label and features Rufus Wainwright, Bono, Lou Reed and others putting their stamp on its titular song styles. NPR has a nice feature on the album, with streams of four of its songs, including Sting's ultra-hammy take on "Blood Red Roses."
There's also a surprisingly thriving Web community of musicians devoted to preserving and performing historical seafaring music. "No Quarter Given" has a long list of links to the home pages of relevant artists (the Brigands, Rusty Cutlass, the Whiskey Bards, etc.), many of which contain MP3 song samples. Here's a snippet of the Bilge Pumps performing "Spanish Ladies."
For anyone interested in full albums of this variously lusty and lonely music, Ewan MacColl and A.L. Lloyd's "Blow Boys Blow" and Paul Clayton's "Sailing and Whaling Songs From the Days of Moby Dick" have both soundtracked many of my own bathtub battles. The simple storytelling and sense of adventure on those albums help them resonate today, long after the real-life counterparts of Jack Sparrow have been laid to rest in Davy Jones' locker.
-- David Marchese