Shoals Of Herring


Jon’s on the money in calling this, “A powerful song from the radio Ballads, I believe. Sung on FSC – despite being a tad wordy for communal singing – the strength of the melody drives it on.”

This is a Ewan MacColl song from the original Radio Ballads that were produced during the late 50s and early 60s and this naturally enough, comes from the one about fishing. A quick diversion to the BBC is recommended if you don’t know anything about these, while Mainly Norfolk has details of the various recordings. There isn’t a mass of detail and there’s more about the 2006 series, but it’s still interesting. I think I’m right in saying that they are all available on CD, although two new ones were broadcast last year aren’t. The format of mixing song and vox pops is effective and can lend extra emotional weight to some very good songs. I think I’ll have to put a set aside as a project for later, or I might download them to my phone. Mind you, the simple tales told without artifice and combined skilfully with music can fair bring a lump to the throat and blubbing on the bus is hardly ideal. There’s a real vérité feel to Ewan’s song and I can visualise boiling seas and oil skins, with the concertina catching the roll and pitch of the boat. It’s also a coming of age song and now a historical memento, adding to the poignancy.
You can buy the February digital album now from all good download stores.


29 Responses to “Shoals Of Herring”

  1. Neil says:


    Nailed it Jon, brilliant rendition. That is all.

  2. Jane Ramsden says:

    Oral/aural history with music thrown in! I’m with Neil. I think you nailed it, by making it sound very natural, like you were a real fisherman!

    Thanks also for the BBC link explaining about Radio Ballads. I hadn’t realised until now that a song/s John Tams sang about the steel industry when I saw him last year were his compositions for one of the 2006 broadcasts.

    Things are starting to come together, so I must be learning something!

  3. Reinhard says:

    A wonderful song; thank you Jon for sharing it with us.

    For further information I recommend Peter Cox’s book Set Into Song: Ewan MacColl, Charles Parker, Peggy Seeger and the Radio Ballads. The website shows just a few pages of each chapter as a teaser, but if you click on the “Further Material” tab, you’ll find the transcripts of all of the original Radio Ballads.

  4. muzza(s.e.England says:

    One of my favourites, great poetry/tune and well sung (goes without saying)…if only I could hit those high notes,I first heard it sung by the Dubliners many, many moons ago
    and talking of fishing songs………some include dangerous pyrotechnics!

  5. StephenH says:

    Yes, quite agree with all the compliments on this one. I also agree with Jon that, though the song is ‘wordy’, The strength of the meoldy carries it. Pass out printed lyric sheets to this one and you’ve got a lovely choral piece. (somewhere I’ve got an lp put out by the Yorkshire Tourist Board- or something along those lines- which has a recording of the “Filey Fisherman’s Hymn”; which bit of information just popped into my head for some reason)

  6. StephenH says:

    sorry, “melody”

  7. Dave Eyre says:

    The real genius in this song can only (IMHO) come from listening to the talking that Sam Larner does on the Radio Ballad. (There is also Ronnie Ball of Yarmouth. You can hear MacColl capture the speech patterns and rhythms of their words and set them to music. This again (IMHO) is the finest example of this in all the Radio Ballads of that era.

    Incidentally it was Sam Larner’s singing that turned Martin Carthy onto traditional song.

  8. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Brenda Burrell, John Baxter, John Baxter, motlmusic, motlmusic and others. motlmusic said: RT @folksongaday: Latest Post: Shoals Of Herring […]

  9. Jeremy says:

    Wonderful version; I’ve loved this song forever, especially that phrase “silver dalrings”. BTW, have you ever come across a song called Shores of Erin? I’ve seen it listed, but never heard it, and I wonder whether it isn’t a chinese whispers version of this song.

  10. elfpix says:

    it’s “herrin”. There’s no “ing” in that word.

  11. George Hawes says:

    A couple of comments on this.
    Firstly, Singing the Fishing was the most successful of the Radio Ballads, though not the first – that was John Axton, my second favourite of them. But it’s important to remember that these are the parents of what we now understand by documentary. The use of “actuality”, and allowing people to tell their own story in their own words was revolutionay at the time.

    Secondly, I remember Ewan and Peggy recounting the recording of the Sam Larner material, in Sam’s cottage. Peggy, in the fashion of the times, wearing a rather short skirt, Sam inclined to affectionately rest his hand above her knee, Peggy shuffling her chair further from him to avoid this. And Sam’s wife, having very poor sight, being largely unaware of this “dance” around the kitchen! Less scurrilously, at the end of one of their visits, Ewan sang “Shoals” back to Sam. “Ah, I remember hearing that as a lad!”‘ Sam commented.

    A lovely recording, but it really is worth getting th CD of the full ballad.

    Note also that Peggy’s website has a lot of interesting material on the Ballads.

    Also, I recall being told of McColl re-recording some of this for a TV version, on a tall ship. Does anyone know any more of that?

  12. John Biggs (Welsh Marches) says:

    Possibly the best loved of all the great songs to come out of the Radio Ballads series, from the pen of the greatest composer of contemporary folk song in these Islands. Ewan and Peggy came to the folk clubs of Southampton many times, and were never less than inspirational.
    Beautifully sung Jon, just right !
    I always think that this song, together with ‘Three Score and Ten’ by William Delf, provides the perfect answer to anyone who complains about ‘the price of fish’.

    As for the bonus track. – A year later, and that evening at The Courtyard in Hereford, is still THE BEST ! Please, do not forget us out here in the sticks Jon, when planning the next tour, and come back soon.

  13. Diana says:

    One of my favourites and especially Jon’s version.

  14. John Biggs (Welsh Marches) says:

    Go to this link, listen to the song and watch the images.

    Our son lives and works in N. Devon and some time ago whilst visiting him we all went for the day to Ilfracombe. We parked by the harbour and noticed two small fishing vessels were being provisioned by the crews. By the amount of supplies going on board they were obviously intending being at sea for some time.
    We came back to the harbour late in the afternoon, and the two vessels were being made ready to sail. Wives , children and girlfriends had come down to the quayside to see them off. They stood in the late sunshine and waved until the boats disappeared around the headland.
    At that point I must have got something in my eyes, because suddenly they were streaming !

  15. Diana says:

    John I followed your link and really enjoyed it. I love to see all the different ships and boats but the sea at its worst it is the most frightening thing I can imagine.

  16. Muzza(NW Surrey.UK) says:

    @Diana………oh….you didn’t follow my link then…I’m sooooo disappointed!

  17. Linda says:

    Short comment both songs beautifully sung!

  18. Diana says:

    @Muzza I am sorry but I didn’t see your link.

  19. Phil says:

    A while ago I heard Norman Haines do a terrific parody of this – I forget the author – called (and about) “A tin of sardines”. I particularly liked the way it sends up the original’s increasingly stretched rhymes with ‘herring’ – at one point the singer looks in his cupboard, but I couldn’t even find anything that rhymed with ‘sardines’.

  20. Muzza (N.W.Surrey-UK) says:

    @Phil………..I wish you knew where the Norman Haines lyrics were…..sounds a laugh
    looked at his stuff on Youtube but didn’t find it….
    mind you….I am not keen on parodys since I heard what somebody did to ‘Early one morning’….something about plastic wrapped sandwiches and cask beer….
    mind you…when I think about it, I shouldn’t object as I have put new words to a traditional tune so I’d better retract that and shut up!

  21. Diana says:

    Catching up Muzza have commented on a couple or three today.

    Do like this one.

  22. Jeremy says:

    I wonder whether this wonderful song will get a new lease of life thanks to being so beautifully done in Inside Llewyn Davis?

  23. Diana says:

    A great song and Jon sings it so well.

  24. Brian Kell says:

    As far as I am aware, the song was never written as a complete thing but as a link between sections of the radio programme. I remember MacColl saying he had to relearn it when asked to sing it in folk clubs. Not withstanding this it tells the tale and you do it proud Jon

  25. Linda says:

    A beautiful song about a very hard life

  26. David Shepley says:

    A great song well sung ,I have a version of this sung by Dave Burland which is equally as good .

  27. OldMuzza(NWSurrey UK) says:

    Oh…..glad to hear it again……I couldn’t resist jumping ahead……and with luck it will still be on line for me next year

  28. Linda says:

    Still on Muzza…doing a catch up again lovely listening to Jon singing this

  29. OldMuzza(NWSurrey uk) says:

    hi Lindy Lou….i’m doing a catchup….I have PC problem.but good to hear this one again

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