Whaling in the 19th century was an important source of many of the products essential to American and European life: oil for fuel and lubrication, baleen, ambergris. Naturally, whaling was also a topic for popular ballads.
Greenland Whale Fisheries is a traditional ballad set to 4/4 time, solid and straight-forward, like the men who crewed the whaling ships. It tells the story of an ill-fated whaling expedition, describing the dangers every whaling crew faced. As with many traditional songs, multiple versions exist with several details altered from version to version. The month, date and year may be different, as the number of men lost, and even whether the captain of the whaler grieved more for the lost men or the lost whale.
Greenland Whale Fisheries
'Twas in eighteen hundred and fifty-three
And of June the thirteenth day,
That our gallant ship her anchor weighed,
And for Greenland bore away, brave boys,
And for Greenland bore away.
The lookout in the crosstrees stood
With spyglass in his hand;
There's a whale, there's a whale,
there's whalefish he cried
And she blows at every span, brave boys
She blows at every span.
The captain stood on the quarter deck,
And a fine little man was he;
Overhaul, overhaul! Let your davit tackles fall,
And launch your boats for sea, brave boys
And launch your boats for sea.
Now the boats were launched and the men aboard,
And the whale was full in view.
Resolved was each seaman bold
To steer where the whalefish blew, brave boys
To steer where the whalefish blew.
We stuck the whale the line paid out,
But she gave a flourish with her tail,
The boat capsized and four men were drowned,
And we never caught that whale, brave boys,
And we never caught that whale.
To lose the whale, our captain said,
It grieves my heart full sore,
But oh! to lose (those) four gallant men
It grieves me ten times more, brave boys
It grieves me ten times more.
The winter star doth now appear,
So, boys we'll anchor weight;
It's time to leave this cold country
And homeward bear away, brave boys
And homeward bear away.
Oh Greenland is a dreadful place
A land that's never green
Where there's ice and snow, and the whalefishes blow
and the daylight's seldom seen brave boys
But the daylight's seldom seen.