One of David Bedford’s most haunting and lyrical pieces is his adaptation of the sea shanty, The Rio Grande for inclusion on his album, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Released in 1975, the album takes episodes from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem of the same name, first published in 1798 and much lauded since.
The poem recounts the story of an ancient mariner and takes the arc of a classic hero’s journey where he departs from normal life by his own hubris, enters and is trapped in the unknown, endures successive trials, and eventually returns home to his ‘mine own countree.’ Our hero – if indeed he can be described that way – is a man transformed as he understands his weaknesses yet now has to live with them for eternity. It is a story that speaks of man’s moral failings, their guilt, and the never completed search for absolution.
The lines below come from the moment when finally the mariner comes in view of his home country after his fateful voyage, and act a base for Bedford’s own lyrics.
Oh! dream of joy! is this indeed
The light-house top I see?
Is this the hill? is this the kirk?
Is this mine own countree?
The traditional version of the sea shanty is in fact not a coming-home song but one sung when a ship was leaving its home port, about to embark on a long voyage. It was sung as the sailors worked the capstan to weigh the anchor.
A beautiful song, it may have originated in Cameroon as a work song before it was picked up by sailors on U.S. owned boats, sailing to and from South America in the early part of the 19th century. However it quickly became popular and was sung by sailors the world over, sometimes with their own adaptation of the lyrics dependant on their home port as in the version below.
This rendition by Robert Shaw, recorded in 1961 with a choir of men’s voices, is an example of how moving the original song sounds particularly with this complex arrangement.
To fit the structure of the poem, and to illustrate the mariner’s return, Bedford wrote new lyrics which turned it into a homecoming shanty.
We’re homeward bound across the blue sea.
We’re homeward bound across the blue sea,
And we’re come from the old country.
And away, love, away.
We’re homeward bound this very day,
And we’re come from the old country.
The composition features Bedford taking a central performing role, playing on grand piano, organs, recorder, chimes, flute, violin and gong, interspersed with readings from the poem by Robert Powell. In the sleeve notes, Phil Howitt writes, ‘Bedford has interwoven layers of keyboards, often creating subtle, melodic, accessible textures.’ Side Two of the album includes Bedford’s arrangement of The Rio Grande, his words sung by the Queens College Girls Choir – where Bedford taught at the time – with Diana Coulson and Lucy Blackburn as the two soloists. Later, a guitar solo is played by Mike Oldfield, one that will send shivers down your spine. The arrangement is less complex than Shaw’s, understandable as the girl’s choir was made up of the younger classes.
Bedford recorded his parts at Richard Branson’s Manor Studio outside Oxford, Oldfield’s guitar solo was recorded in his own studio at Kington in Herefordshire, and the girl’s choir recorded in situ at the Queen’s College, in Marylebone, using the Manor’s mobile unit.
The song captures the sound of being far-away, the pain and loneliness of homesickness, and that sense of longing, triggered by nostalgia for times long past.
A video that does justice to the song was not previously available. To make amends this new video was created in 2020. The editor started out wanting to capture this notion of longing for a home country reflecting his own experiences as someone who has lived far from home. Initially he had a different concept in mind but then found old footage of a family taking a seaside holiday in the early 1960s.
‘This footage was perfect,’ he says. ‘For many, nostalgia is often most perfectly expressed by the memories of holidays taken as a child, paddling in the sea and eating ice cream. And of course, as the song is about the sea, then a seaside holiday closely reflects the song’s themes.’
An image of the Union Jack is used because the ancient mariner returned to the United Kingdon and the superimposed words are only featured to ensure that the viewer is clear about the lyrics – essential to fully capture the pathos of the song.
However, initially we see something that is more modern: animated footage to accompany the synthesised sounds that are heard. At this moment, the listener is unaware that they are about to listen to something rooted in tradition because the synthesised rhythm suggests this is a piece of electronica. The rug is pulled from under the listeners’ expectations as suddenly we move from the modern to the past. Yet, although most viewers will be unaware of the connection, the animation is from an installation that was shown on a tiny island in the Seto Inland Sea, and which itself was a piece of art that reflected the maritime environment, with themes of man’s exploration but always being at the mercy of the elements.
Just like the ancient mariner.
Cras Ingens Iterabimus Aequor
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