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A Pirate's Life for Me!
Poem: The Ballad of Sadie the Goat

2003-03-19

t probably says a little something about my fickle nature that 24 hours after ruminating somberly on the sorry state of the world, I have spent the day today obsessed with pirates. I just can't help myself, though. Whenever I have an idle hour, I think of pirates.

They're still around, in case you didn't know it. As an example, they swarm the waters in the Straight of Malacca, a 400 mile long stretch of salt water between Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. Forget the old films of flamboyant, tawny men with peg-legs, Devonshire accents, and Jolie Rouge flags fluttering from one of the three masts on their Barque sailing vessel. These pirates pilot high-powered motor boats, carry automatic weapons, and use radar and the Global Positioning System. The high seas are still a lawless land, and the lawless still pirate it.

I don't know how modern day pirates do things, and don't much wish to know. I doubt they elect their captains by voting for one from among their crew, as did the pirates of the Golden Age, during the 17th and 18th centuries. I doubt that modern pirates have an insurance policy, awarding them such things as 400 pieces of eight for the loss of a left leg, as was common practice among the sea dogs of the 1700s. And I very much doubt they gather in the captain's cabin, raise high a flagon of rum, and let loose with hoarse, hearty shanties celebrating their lives. Forgive me if I am being a bit nostalgic, but I think they are worse off as a result.

Pirate songs are very much to my taste. What could be more disreputable? These are, after all, songs that celebrate lives of roguery and debauchery, often in no uncertain terms. We still sing them, even if we don’t know it. That awful "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" song? Pirate! Or, at least, it often shows up on contemporary collections of pirate songs, sometimes with the beer in the lyrics replaced with rum. This might be historically accurate, but seems far too much rum for even the sturdiest pirate to imbibe. But then, pirates were a drunk group, as demonstrated by this lyrics from the song "Mrs. McGraw," in which a pirate's mother, seeing her newly legless son, instantly assumes that it was the result of his drinking:

"Now was ye drunk, was ye blind,
When ye left yer two fine legs behind?
Or was ye out walkin' out on the sea
That tore yer legs from yer knees away?"

Who else would be scolded for drunkenness when they return home limbless, but what else would you expect from a group of lawless adventurers who had, among their favorite shanties, one whose consisted of single sets of rhymed couplets, each extolling the dubious excellence of whisky? I speak of the song "Whisky Johnny," which is unmatched in its swaggering, sodden, wretched alcoholic boasting. Take these two sets of couplets:

Whiskey made me pawn me clothes
Whiskey gave me this broken nose

I wisht I knew where whiskey grew
I'd eat the leaves and the branches too

and, of course, there is this verse, which sums up the song as well as any:

Whiskey here, whiskey there
Whiskey almost everywhere

Ah, for the life of a sailor.

These pirate songs are often great history -- or, rather, they're bad history, but great fun. Let's look at the song "Captain Kidd," which appeared on broadsides shortly after the famed privateer was hanged for piracy on May 1 of 1701 (that's him hanging in the image at the top of the page). The broadside didn't waste much time with the petty details of history, such as the possibility that Kidd wasn't a pirate in the truest sense of the word, but was instead, essentially, an independent contractor hired to track down pirates and reclaim stolen booty. Well, never mind history when you can sing such brutal biographical lines as:

I murdered William Moore, as I sail'd, as I sail'd,
I murdered William Moore, as I sail'd,
I murdered William Moore, and left him in his gore,
Not many leagues from shore, as I sail'd.

And being cruel still, as I sail'd, as I sail'd,
And being cruel still, as I sail'd,
And being cruel still, my gunner I did kill,
And his precious blood did spill, as I sail'd.

There's something strangely inspiring about this sort of lyrical bloodletting -- it's easy to understand why the critic and linguist H.L. Mencken once said, " Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats." Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera is infused with this sort of sensibility, as though the highwaymen of John Gay's original Beggar's Opera had been replaced with sea robbers. Brecht and Weill's dingy Thames river is menaced by the brigand Macheath, and their famous song to him, "The Ballad of Mac the Knife," sounds like it is explicity based on sea shanties. This is especially true if you have heard Brecht's own groaning rendition of it, played on a creaky accordion, but just take a peek at the opening lines:

See the shark has teeth like razors
All can read his open face
And Macheath has got a knife, but
Not in such an obvious place

See the shark, How red his fins are
As he slashes at his prey
Mac the Knife wears white kid gloves which
Give the minimum away

But the Brecht/Weill composition that most explicitly draws from the tradition of the buccaneer sea song is "The Ballad of Pirate Jenny," (itself inspiring the name of a contemporary pirate rock band) in which a maid, busily scrubbing a floor, entertains herself with fantasies of violent revenge against her employers, culminating in this swashbuckling sequence:

By noontime the dock
is a-swarmin' with men
comin' out from the ghostly freighter
They move in the shadows
where no one can see
And they're chainin' up people
and they're bringin' em to me
askin' me,
"Kill them NOW, or LATER?"
Askin' ME!
"Kill them now, or later?"

Jenny, of course, answers "now."

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I have pirate fantasies of my own, and to take my mind off war, I have been indulging in them today. Specifically, I have been reading about Sadie the Goat, one of history's great female pirates, who could easily have been Jenny's model. Sadie the Goat was a figure strange enough to be a character in Martin Scorsese's recent Gangs of New York, and I do not say this because she could easily have stood toe-to-toe with Daniel Day Louis's flamboyantly violent Bill the Butcher (loosely based on an actual historical character. I say it because Sadie the Goat actually is a character in Gangs of New York. Herbert Asbury's original book, detailing the underworld of Civil War-era New York, lets us in on a little-known bot of historical trivia: Pirates once stalked the peer and the shores of the Hudson and East River -- as many as four or five hundred. Sadie sailed the Hudson in a stolen sloop with a Jolly Roger flag on the masthead, robbing farmhouses and mansions in hamlets like Poughkeepsie. It is hard to imagine what farmers of the era must have thought when a pirate ship rolled up the Harlem River, headed straight for them. Sadie the Goat had read stories about pirates, and believed every one of them, even those that weren't true. She had a fondness for kidnapping people, holding them for ransom, and then making them walk the plank. Prior to the moment the first of Sadie's victim's plummeted into the grimy Hudson, walking the plank had been a historical fiction.

Those of you who have seen Gangs of New York might remember a saloon with a pickle jar of alcohol on its bar, the jar filled to overflowing with severed ears. This was a real bar, the Hole-in-the-Wall, which Ashbury described as a "waterfront dive," and one of those ears belonged to Sadie. She had crossed the bar's legendary bouncer, a six-foot-tall Englishwoman named Gallus Mag, who kept her skirt held up with suspenders and carried a cudgel strapped to her arm. Gallus Mag liked to deal with bar rowdies by knocking them insensible with her club, and then dragging them out of the bar by seizing their ear with her teeth. Protest too much and Mag would keep the ear. Sadie the Goat protested too much. After years of animosity, Sadie went to Mag, begging for forgiveness, which she received on the day the New York police closed down the Hole-in-the-Wall, along with her ear.

I was inspired enough by Sadie's bizarre story to compose my own pirate shanty to her, since, as far as I can tell, she has none of her own, and what a pity. After all, she was an amateur historian on the subject of pirates, and certainly knew that all the best had songs written about them. I feel certain that while she stalked the deck of her own ill-gotten pirate ship, rubbing the nub of flesh that had been her ear and shoving farmers overboard, she must have thought, "One day, this will be celebrated in song."

Well, Sadie, today is your day.

The Ballad of Sadie the Goat

There's a figure doubled over
in the alley by the square
some wonder if she's breathing,
but they leave her lying there
none goes to see about her
none calls to her, they don't dare
though she's old and arthritic
and her clothes she ragged wear

there's a boy he's crossing to her
and he kneels and prods her now
the boy's mother she calls out to him
don't you touch her don't nohow
but the boy he does not listen
and puts his hand upon her brow
and both are quiet briefly
in the shadows in the slough

look she's dead he cries now
look her lips are tight and blue
and the boy he tugs upon her
saying lets take a look at you
and his mother she cries leave her
leave her be boy come here do
but the boy he stand up curious
and takes in a better view

she's just another body
in a fourth ward full of dead
and dead bodies have full pockets
that should be emptied out instead
a nickel will buy you roast beef
and a penny will buy you bread
a corpse with a full pocket
is a boy who sleeps unfed

and this corpse has got a locket
hanging from a golden chain
it's a battered wooden box
that has clattered in the drain
but it must be a thing of value
to be hung from such a chain
and so the boy kicks at the box
and then he kicks and kicks again

its shatters and it opens
and the boy he stoops to see
the contents of the box now
and he grasps out greedily
and his mother she calls to him
do not touch it leave it be
but the boy he does not listen
and his hands they grasp gladly

its an ear he cries out mother
its an ear an ear an ear
and he drops it and runs to her
and she swats him on his rear
and says I told you didn't I eh
I told you to come here
I should beat you but anyway
you nearly caught your death from fear

and the body lies untouched
in an alley on a furrow
and the mother pulls her son away
saying come now lad let's go now
who was she he asks weeping
oh she says, oh, oh, oh now
she was a pirate she was a pirate
and that's all you need to know now

Cheers! And cheers to Sadie the Goat, wherever her wretched spirit may dwell!

© Max Sparber. Click for republication information.


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Posted by UkuleleKing at 6:17 a.m.

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