The UK National Sound Archive in London contains a recording made in about 1970 of an old sailor singing the sea shanties of his youth.1 Its mood is curiously poignant, with the auditors of this lone voice singing songs meant for a group seeming to realize that they are hearing the aural memories of a vanished era of seafaring, perhaps for the last time. Midway through the interview, the oral historians ask for the well-known shanty ‘Rio Grande’. ‘This is an awkward one,’ the old chanteyman replies before taking a quick swig on his stout and gamely attempting a rendition. He calls out the chorus with gusto:
In the old days, he explains, sailors deliberately mispronounced the word ‘Rio’ as ‘Rye-oh’ because making the word into ‘more of a mouthful’ better suited the rhythmic movements of men working at a capstan (Figure 1).
A-way, Rio, Heave a-way for Rio, Sing fare ye well, My bonnie young girl, We’re bound for the Rio Grande!
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© Stephen Donovan 2005