For the Upcoming Ballot
By the Risin' of the Sea
Shanties for Our Time
Music, Lyrics, and Lead Vocals by James Kahn
Best Folk Album
“A testament to the power of the human voice.” — Grateful Web, 4/2022
This collection of original sea shanties is in the musical tradition of the 18th century sailing songs – but these concern modern day environmental dilemmas such as climate change, ocean pollution, covid-19, weather disasters, and immigrant migrations. Sea shanties were once sung by sailors as work songs, while they grappled with the elements to survive. This is an album of anthems and odes to our own elemental struggles with the existential effects of global warming. Are we not all sailors?
"The vocal harmonies are the real star of the show here, sounding really haunting at times… Suits the sea shanty genre down to the ground." — York Calling, 4/26/2022
"Kahn’s songs are inarguably true to the traditional form of shanties, mostly a capella with sparse musical accompaniment on accordion (played by Brian Mann), acoustic guitar, pennywhistle, hammer dulcimer, and, eerily, bones used for percussion by Sharmon Termondt. There are guest appearances by The Punch Brothers’ Gabe Witcher and Toad The Wet Sprocket’s Glen Phillips. The four- and five-part vocal harmonies, particularly on the title track, are impressive, as is its award-winning video." – Americana UK, 5/2022
"It’s a meaningful and moving mix of sound and suggestion, imbued with emotion but inspired by the need to take immediate action in order to protect the planet." — Lee Zimmerman, The Daily Ripple, 5/25/22
"By the Risin’ of the Sea brings sea shanties into the modern era, tackling contemporary themes with classic folk musical strains. It is by turns moving and poignant, funny and angry, while remaining full of hope." — Sterling K. Webb, Sponic Zine, 4/2022
"Beginning with the low drone of Adam Phillips’ pastoral bagpipes and then Kahn’s timeless folk-vocal, ‘No More a’ Whalin” succeeds in transporting us across both time and place. The song is held together by the low heartbeat thump of Rebecca Troon’s bodhran, beating out an absorbing rhythm, while David West and Doug Clegg deliver gorgeous, rich backing vocals, harmonies that rise and soar, lifting Kahn’s own voice." — Americana UK, 6/2022
"James Kahn… gives us… a unique and very special beauty with a strong enchanting acoustic vibe, in addition to the characteristic voice of this minstrel that seems to declaim a tale in the form of poetry." — Roadie Music Blog 6/21/2022
"The record maintains a sonic and spiritual authenticity, transporting the audience back in time…The third song, “Landfall,” offers something of a mission statement. Kahn and his musical brethren sing about the search for a home on land. Beyond the literal imagining of sailors searching for a shore, it takes on profound application to a world adrift." — David Masciotra, The Daily Ripple, 5/18/22
1. Risin’ of the Sea. I felt a strong drive to write this, out of a real fear that climate change is drastically affecting the course of human history, while we blithely preoccupy ourselves with trivia. Like Nero fiddling while Rome burned. The drought, the wildfires, the storms, water wars, refugee crises, species die-offs, habitat destruction, rising seas – I tried to make the song an emotional, musical documentary, to let the images and music appeal to people’s hearts. Maybe we can still mitigate some of the ruin – as the song lyric says, “By every word and deed.” In the end, climate will shift, and the physical planet will adjust.
It’s living populations that will be hit hard. I only hope that through music, with its powerful lyrics and beautiful harmonies, we can soothe our souls enough to find a better spiritual place, as well as a way forward. Five part a cappella, with Glen Phillips on backup tenor, and poignant background accordion played by the remarkable Brian Mann.
2. In the Covid Times. This is a raucus, foot-stomping, semi-drunken response to the year 2020, and what it brought us – Covid-19, pillaging mobs, pandemic, everyone in masks, unemployment, social isolation, floods, drought, immigrant migrations – have I forgotten anything? But my response here is to raise a glass and toast each other, as we do the dance with Death in the pub. Sometimes there’s just no point in trying to stop the river – but the first step is always to enumerate, and then emotionally, embrace what is.
3. Landfall. This is about seeking personal meaning, the search we all make for our own landfall – the place we feel whole and at home, where we can rest – “Where my deep soul abides.” So important in an age when the world seems to be spinning out of control. And truly, the whole world is now our little ship. If we can find our own place on deck, maybe we can even help steer. Four part a cappella, with a heart-wrenching baritone from the album's extraordinary producer, engineer, and multi-instrumentalist, David West.
4. 2020: Ship of Fools. Another one about that strange year. As if the whole year were an ocean, and we took a treacherous journey across it in a shaky vessel full of fools. When the lockdown came in March of that year, “We thought we might be gone a week, and then a month or two. But the leaky vessel lost its way…” Some travelers cried, some died, and some “drilled little holes in the hull for fun.” All those pandemic deniers, mask deniers, vaccine deniers, climate deniers, racism deniers, science deniers – all doing their best to sink the ship. And when we ultimately return to safe harbor, the “world will have changed.” But with a shrug and a sigh, my response at the end of this reel is to have a jigger of gin to the past few years. Let’s move on. Lorin Grean plays recorders on this, which I thought gave it a funny, almost incongruent madrigal air.
5. No More a’ Whalin’. This was the first song I wrote for the album. Stimulated by producer David West, who said, “Why don’t you write a sea shanty about saving the whales instead of harpooning them?” So I did – focusing on their majesty, and the tragedy of their near disappearance. May they last forever. Adam Phillips on the Scottish pipes, which gives the song an ancient feel, like the whales themselves. Adding whalesong at the end was something I remembered from an old Judy Collins track, Farewell to Tarwathie, a traditional whaling folksong.
6. Bucket o’ Bones. This was a lighthearted romp, a quickstep parody of pirate songs of yore, posing the question: What would it be like if a 17th century pirate showed up here and signed on a cruise ship? Full of omens and ending with Davy Jones, this is essentially a witness to our overconsumption, and subsequent pollution of the oceans – with trash, oil slicks, plagues, and general disregard of the seas that sustain us. The pirate fiddle on this is courtesy of Gabe Witcher, the phenomenally great violinist who plays with Punch Brothers. Arrrgh!
7. O the Ocean Rolls. My tribute to refugees everywhere, the bravery and catastrophes of their journey. We talk about the headlines of the refugee crisis, but it’s not quite real until it’s particularized to individual cases. So I wrote this about a small group of boat people sailing from Cuba to America – and the fate of each traveler. It’s in shanty format, with rhythmic refrain in every verse. But because of the Cuban origins of most of the immigrants here, my producer, David West, added two ethno-musical instruments to the mix – the tres and the requinto – giving the track an added poignancy and authenticity.
8. The Vast Infinity. A bright, optimistic shanty reel. No matter what stormy seas we face, this sailor is giving himself over to that Vast Infinity – which I think means whatever you want it to, whether religious, atheist, or scientist. I wanted it to be accompanied by spoons, but the producer, David West, had a better idea. He knew someone who played the bones – in this case Sharon Termondt, who played legit Irish cow ribs, direct from the Cliffs of Mohr. In the music video of this song, I added extra percussion – an Irish step dancer and a tap dancer.
9. On the Other Side. A long story song, made to sound live, in a pub. This old sailor tells his tale of woe, losing his job, losing his home, then finding his love, setting out to sea after her, and settling in a faraway place with time on his hands and a longing for something more. Like a lot of us in the third act of our lives, wondering where it all went, and what’s in store next. The only instruments are guitar, mugs, stomps, silverware, hoots and claps.
10. Cast on the Water. Not really a shanty, more of a seafaring air, a simple folksong. Another story song about a man who is lost, trying to find his way through the world, setting out to sea – and finally having a vision of reconciling with his dead brother, a journey that puts his soul at peace. Gorgeously accompanied on hammered dulcimer by David West.
11.Island of Dreams. A light-hearted, funny addition to the album – inspired by the 5 mile island of plastic debris permanently floating in the Pacific Ocean, composed of polyethylene bags, bottles, six-pack rings, toys – and it’s been there so long, it’s developing its own ecology, getting bigger all the time. The singer of this tale is a treasure hunter who, seeing it from afar, mistakes the soda bottles for jewels, and the piles of junk the buildings of a great, lost civilization. Alas, dreams are evanescent, and in the end, we have to wake up.
12. Sundown. Bracketing the album with another five-part a cappella climate change lament (David West and I singing all the parts this time), this one was inspired by an eco-biologist friend of mine, who said one day, “You know, people talk about rising temperatures, but it’s happening so gradually, we just keep adjusting, which lets us ignore the realities. The reality is, different species have different inflection points, so one day we’ll wake up, and – no more bees.” And bees, of course, are crucial to our food chain. I added a note of hope to the end of the song – “If we’re wise, ‘twill be fine.” Getting wise is the challenge for all of us.
FYC For the Upcoming Ballot
By the Risin' of the Sea
Best Folk Album