Sound and vision blog

01 June 2020

Recording of the week: Herrings' heads

This week's selection comes from Harriet Roden, Digital Learning Content Developer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Johnny Doughty was always singing songs about the sea and the shore. Born in 1903, he grew up in a fishing family in Brighton, Sussex. His grandmother took in washing, his uncle supplied the horses for the lifeboat.

Brighton Net Arches in the 1860s
Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove, CC BY-SA

The start of Johnny’s singing career was rocky, and striking a balance between the school choir and his love of the beach proved difficult. As a child, Johnny spent Sundays helping fishermen with their boating and his mother often had to fetch him in time to perform at the local church. On one occasion he forgot his boots and stockings. Although he attempted to march in with the rest of the choir in just his cassock, he got the sack instead.

Outside of school and home, he spent his time on the beach – the cockle and whelk stalls, the boats and St Margaret’s Net Arch by the Palace Pier. Here Johnny listened to the hum of songs from sailors and fishermen mending their nets.

One such song he learnt at the Arch was Herring’s Heads. A cumulative song with a simple harmony, Johnny himself describes the song as a ‘beer-shop song’. Each verse dissects the body of the fish and transforms each part into something new. First, the head is turned into ‘loaves of bread’, the eyes become ‘puddings and pies’ and the bellies ‘jams and jellies’. A version of each verse and chorus is repeated until the performers’ reach the herrings' tails.

Herring's heads (BL REF C1047/39)

Beyond the Arch, Johnny learned more songs through his time spent in both the Royal and Merchant navy and his years spent trawling the ocean for fish.

It wasn’t until he was in his early seventies that he was discovered by Mike Yates to record for Topic Records. Ever the performer, Johnny would take the time to entertain with funny asides and winks here-and-there, very often with a ‘pot’ of Guinness in one hand.

Discover more sea shanties and sounds from our shores on the British Library’s Coast website.

UOSH

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