Desert Island Discs: “The Hard And The Easy” by Great Big Sea (2005)Posted: April 5, 2012
About three years ago, through the suggestion of my friend Lily, I became aware of Great Big Sea. It will take me years to thank her for this.
Great Big Sea is unlike any other band you will ever hear. “Celtic rock” is a phrase often applied to them, but that doesn’t even do them justice. Principal members Séan McCann, Bob Hallett, Alan Doyle, and Darrell Power grew up in Newfoundland and met up at university where all were English majors. They shared a love of the folk songs they grew up with, including sea shanties, which draw from the island’s 500-year-old Irish, English, and French heritage. And of course, rock’n’roll. They earned their apprenticeships playing in the divey college bars of St. John’s to wildly enthusiastic fans, and released their first DIY album in 1993. More albums followed which maintained the formula established in their stage shows: a mix of Newfie folk songs with originals and some covers (“Run Runaway” by Slade, “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” by R.E.M., “Let My Love Open The Door” by Pete Townshend).
By 2005 Darrell Power had quit the band to pursue a quieter life in Newfoundland. And many of the band’s more hardcore folky followers were hoping they would play less R’n’R. Thus bolstered by a new bassist and drummer, GBS went into the studio and recorded “The Hard And The Easy,” their seventh studio album and a compilation of the folk songs mostly gleaned from Alan Doyle’s family songbooks. All of the guys had grown up with these songs, though, and all of their families very likely had similar collections.
There was one exception. The band recorded a song called “The Mermaid” which they believed to be an old Irish sea shanty. It was only after Warner Canada pressed and released the CD that they discovered it had actually been written by the one and only Shel Silverstein. The cover art, front and back, illustrates the song: the mixed-species image is on the front cover, and the back cover features the two species reversed. As McCann describes looking at the two images: “Sometimes it makes me hungry, and…”
It’s also noteworthy that “The Hard And The Easy” features not one, but two songs about horses falling through the ice (“Concerning Charlie Horse” and “Tickle Cove Pond”). How many other albums can you say that about?!
As I said, I’m a fan. This is the GBS album I most often return to and sing along with. I’m Scots-Irish and not a Newfie, but I don’t think you need to be in order to appreciate these songs. It’s a great place to start if you’ve never heard the b’ys before.
Some highlights: “Come And I Will Sing You (The Twelve Apostles)” is a traditional Newfoundland song that shares themes and imagery with many other folk-based songs including “The Twelve Days Of Christmas.” Bob Hallett observes that some version of this song exists in almost every culture, or at least western culture. He adds that you are destined to be remembered forever if you were to sing this song at a party.
“Captain Kidd” is reported to be the story of pirate William Kidd. Alan Doyle gives it hell.
“Graceful And Charming (Sweet Forget-Me-Not)” was the song Séan McCann’s grandfather sang to propose to his wife, and was one of the first songs Séan ever learned.
Get this album and you’ll be hooked too. And if you ever get a chance to see GBS in person: wake the kids, phone the neighbors, hock the jewelry. You will not regret it.
Clips from Youtube