In 2006, Anti- Records, home of Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Neko Case, Kate Bush (and so many more favorites of mine, this list is already too long), published the tons-of-fun compilation Rogue’s Gallery, a selection of sea shanties and pirate songs as interpreted by an ensemble of luminaries from the pop, indie, and folk worlds. The two-CD, forty-three track release is available on YouTube (I’d recommend Nick Cave’s “Fire Down Below,” but he’s an old hand at this kind of thing).
Both CDs are produced by Hal Willner and curated by Willner and Pirates of the Caribbean star Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski; Son of Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys is set for release on February 19th. Willner told Rolling Stone in December that this new release “seems happier—not as much about torture, sodomy and death.” Hard to imagine a sea song without those three things, but here we are, with “Shenandoah” (above), a nostalgic hymn to old Virginia, supposedly sung by Missouri River flatboatmen in the early 19th century, then exported ‘round the world on clipper ships. The version above by Tom Waits and Keith Richards turns the maudlin ballad into a drunken funeral dirge. A commenter on the video puts it perfectly: “If a song could smell like whiskey….” Richards’ spare electric guitar work near the end adds a clean, melodic counterpoint to Waits’ down-and-out growl. Wonderful stuff.
The song has long been a favorite of clean-shaven choral and vocal groups like the Statler Brothers and Mormon Tabernacle Choir and was the title theme of the 1965 Civil War film Shenandoah, with Jimmy Stewart. Waits and Richards do the song a much-needed service—they reclaim it for the drunken, dirty boatmen and rum-soaked, lonely sailors who sang it at sea.
* Correction: a previous version of this post stated that Rogue’s Gallery and Son of Rogue’s Gallery were associated with the Walt Disney company and part of the Pirates of the Caribbean promotional campaign. As you can see from producer Hal Willner’s comment below, neither project is associated with Disney or the marketing of the Pirates films. We apologize for the mistake.
Josh Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness