Ship comes in at last for Cornish folk singers

Ralph Gifford
Monday 07 February 2011 01:00
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The Fisherman's Friends grew up in the same village and have been singing together for 16 years - Trevor Grills pictured back row, second from right.
The Fisherman's Friends grew up in the same village and have been singing together for 16 years - Trevor Grills pictured back row, second from right.

The Fisherman's Friends, a choir from Port Isaac in Cornwall who sing sea shanties, will receive a special BBC Radio 2 Folk Award for Good Tradition tonight after taking the folk music world by storm.

The group of fishermen, tradesmen, shopkeepers, a potter and a farmer, are also tipped to win the category for Best Group at the ceremony, hosted by Mike Harding and folk singer Barbara Dickson at the Brewery in the City of London.

Once known as a safe haven for fishermen and sailors on the merciless north Cornish coast, Port Isaac, with its typical whitewashed cottages and cobbled lanes, is now a place more recognisable as the setting for television dramas such as Doc Martin and films such as Nigel Cole's Saving Grace.

However, the Fisherman's Friends have proved that home-grown talent can grab the headlines, too. The choir, who have sung together for 16 years, first came to critical attention when they released their first album, Port Isaac's Fisherman's Friends, on Universal Records at the end of April 2010. Since then, they have performed at Glastonbury, the Cambridge Folk Festival, the Royal Festival Hall, Union Chapel and, slightly closer to home, the Boardmasters Festival in Newquay and the Falmouth Sea Shanty Festival.

Billy Hawkins, 60, a potter, has been singing in the choir since it began. He said: "It's very bizarre at my age to be doing all these amazing things. Playing on stages that you have only ever dreamt of, really is an incredible experience. We all grew up together and went to the school. We are a choir who are singing songs of the village and I think this is unique for folk these days."

Sea shanties are thought to have originated as early as the 15th century, with the word itself coming from the French word chanter, "to sing". The songs' rhythm was used by sailors to keep in sync when doing laborious tasks such as scrubbing the decks or hauling a long-line. Different shanties were sung when performing different tasks. A "capstan shanty" would have been sung when raising the anchor because of its smoother sound; in contrast, a "long-haul shanty" would be sung when doing a task that would last a long time.

Tonight, the Fisherman's Friends will sing "South Australia", a typical "capstan shanty", to their fellow nominees and winners at the awards ceremony. A special-edition version of the group's current album is being released this spring and a new album is due out in November.

A book is being written about the choir, and just last week, they were filming an advert for a frozen-food company.

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