Fire Marengo


This of course found its way, with a typically playful and funky arrangement onto Burlesque and Jon says, “One of a number of shanties where the influence of African song is very evident.” Burlesque suggests a “fierce debate rages over whether this is a hauling shanty or a cotton screwing shanty.” Mainly Norfolk picks up that notion and it’s interesting to the see the job of cotton screwing described as, “one of the hardest shipboard tasks,” which would have been performed by a land based crew of stevedores. The song may very well have origins around the Southern USA or with the reference to Hilo, the South American seaboard. But you’ll note that this version is akin to The Young Tradition’s recording, which by their own admission added some floating verses. The origins of Marengo or Maringo and its place in this song are less clear, although if you follow down this Mudcat thread you’ll find reference to towns in America, at least one of which was in Alabama and therefore quite possibly at the heart of cotton farming. The town was named after the Battle Of Marengo and apparently settled by French veterans, which might finally make sense of this rather odd title. The battle itself was a land battle fought by Napoleon in Italy, whith no naval action at all, so it’s unlikely to have made a direct leap aboard ship. The battle ended with an Austrian force being defeated, ending that country’s influence in Italy and substantially boosting the French Emporer’s standing. He even named a horse, later captured at Waterloo, after the action and did much else to commemorate the victory, with much post victory spinning. If that’s tweaked your curiosity, you can Wiki here. Of the song, it seems likely Royston Wood rather than Bellamy  is the originator of this version.



23 Responses to “Fire Marengo”

  1. Sarah says:

    Good start to a frosty morning!

  2. Shelley says:

    Being used to Bellowhead’s disco rendition of this one, I wasn’t sure the bare bones of this one would work, but it does. I love the crazy fiddle accompaniment.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Folk & wereldmuziek, Jon Boden. Jon Boden said: Latest Post: : Fire Marengo […]

  4. A lot of seamen were paid off or jumped ship to go down South for the cotton loading so presumably that’s how it got to be a shipboard song as well.

  5. LadyD says:

    This track is one of my all time fave Bellowhead tracks. I like the funky fiddle on this version….and being able to hear the words clearly.
    Actually that’s something I’ve noticed, until hearing the ‘bare bones’ versions of these songs for FSAD I’d never heard all the words quite…right before. lol! Having it so pared down stops me getting too distracted by the tune and makes me actually listen to the words.

  6. Katie says:

    I quite agree with LadyD, this is the song that got me into Bellowhead, and from there into Spiers and Boden, then Jon’s solo stuff, so it’s got a lot to answer for!
    Much as we may love one version of a song, hearing it done by a different artist or in a different way can help re-interpret it all over again.
    Keep up the good work!

  7. LadyD says:

    Hey, Katie ‘snap’. I saw them perform this song on the TV…which led to me buying the album, joining the forum, going to my first ever gig and thenceforth the slide into the world of folk.

  8. Phil says:

    On the other hand, I’d never heard this song before & thought it was rather fine.

  9. Jane Ramsden says:

    Playing a bit of catch-up on AFSAD today. Love that crazy fiddle too, but it is probably my favourite instrument. Like this song as well, having heard Bellowhead perform it live recently. Works well like this tho’. In fact, the fiddle gives it a certain impact to rival even the full B-head ensemble! Well played!

  10. Diana says:

    I have noticed that there are no comments for 2011 for the last several songs, so it appears that I have been left holding the fort for the present. Fire Marengo is another great sea shanty with quite a different formula to the Bellowhead versionwhich I prefer.

  11. Simon says:

    Don’t worry Diana we’re still here… It’s possible that comments are a bit like busses. Some of the regulars will be here for the second time around and have said their piece above.

    We still had just over 2000 people on the site last week from right across the globe, so even if the majority aren’t motivated to leave a comment you are not alone and I for one appreciate your daily posts…

  12. Diana says:

    That’s very gratifying Simon that you read my comments. I appreciate your remarks about busses but there seemed to be none in sight for some time and I thought perhaps I had missed the last one!

  13. Reinhard says:

    Speaking of busses, I recommend Bellowhead’s A Bus Song a Day on YouTube.

  14. Simon says:

    Glad you’ve been enjoying that Reinhard… What a lark!! My favourites are London and Falmouth – I bet that water was a bit nippy(!!!), but the Fisherman’s Fiends pisstake is priceless. By the way the band were on cracking form at Shepherd’s Bush and a brief few minutes at the after show found them all to be in high spirits indeed, before I went off for my second gig of the night (phew!) and a complete change of mood with a jazz piano trio with added string quartet.

  15. Linda says:

    Day 15 bus song a day Portsmouth. Could this be an idea for a future Bellowhead DVD feature ? Warm up with The Toastie.before the main feature. Back to Fire Marengo another good song still not sure I understand the Marengo bit.

  16. John Biggs (Welsh Marches) says:

    A great shanty, and a wild fiddle to help it along.
    I do not think it is worth agonising too much over the hidden meanings in many shanty refrains. A solid beat was all that was required to keep everyone in time and thus maximise the effort going into what ever task was being undertaken . Any sequence of words would do as long as they fitted.

  17. John Monk says:

    Yes Love the crazy fiddle! Works well with Jon’s voice.

  18. John Monk says:

    Now what were you aiming at? Little Sally Brown. Sometimes I have to revisit songs years later to discover what they might mean…

  19. Jane Ramsden says:

    I do like the quirkiness of this song. Thanks to Skyman’s pointer to Mainly Norfolk for a brief explanation about cotton screwing:

    “Cotton screwing was about the hardest shipboard task there was: the bales of cotton were forced into the hold until they were packed solid. The men who worked at this would be shorebound sailors, working in the South American harbours till they had saved themselves some money; all nations were represented, so the songs they sang would perhaps contain references to Sally Brown’s counterpart in all parts of the world; for the purposes of this song, the sailor came from Liverpool.”

    So far, so good! But much ado about Marengo/Maringo in the Mudcat café did not produce anything conclusive. Yes, several places of that name, but nothing that definitively says it is a place-name in the song. The most plausible suggestion of meaning to me comes from one Charley Noble as follows:

    “Maringo” was a common name of a stevedore, and “Fire, Maringo” simply meant send another bail of cotton to the screw press.”

    That’ll do for the bear!

  20. Muzza+387days (NW Surrey-UK) says:

    Wowsa..that is some fiery fiddle playing….oh lordy pick a bale o’ cotton

  21. Diana says:

    Another favourite of mine.Then I do love sea shanties.

  22. Sarah says:

    Especially if they mention Liverpool…

  23. Linda says:

    Hey Muzza been at it again Bellowhead in Nottingham with Sam Sweeney band as pre show entertainment all brilliant…..

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