Review: Billy Bones and Other Ditties

Rating: ★★½☆☆
Skip Henderson

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Genre: Traditional and traditional inspired sea shanteys.
Rating: PG
Target Audience: Grown ups, mostly

Skip Henderson’s “Billy Bones and Other Ditties” is one of the most aptly named albums of all time. Amongst the track listing is, as expected, the song “Billy Bones” – one of the greatest pirate songs I’ve ever heard. And the rest of the album is a bunch of ditties – some more entertaining than others, but few that really leave a mark.

The album begins with the instramental “The Quilty Hornpipe.” Jiggy yet subdued, it makes for a nice introductory track.

Next up is aforementioned “Billy Bones,” an absolutely brilliant piece that sounds both sinister and self-satisfied as an old pirate calously sings over the skeleton of an old adversary/partner. It has an old-timey sea shantey feel, but carries a drama and a catchiness rarely seen in such songs. Sounding as though it’s performed by genuine pirates, this track alone is very nearly worth the cost of the CD.

“General Taylor” sounds like a drinking song about a funeral. Carries a nice lively beat, but is otherwise unremarkable.

“Tarbaulin Jacket” follows. Also about funeral arrangements, one starts to notice a pattern in the subject matter. Also noticeable is that most of the songs from here an are, indeed, ditties – nice, fun, even catchy at times, but mostly forgetable.

“Ben Backstay” is a lively number with fun lyrics about sharks and humorously unfortunate death at sea. Sadly, the refrain drives my crazy (something along the lines of “with a chip chop cherry top polly rolly riddle rock, chip chop cherry top polly riddle rock”).

“Two Hornpipes” is another instrumental piece that would be nothing more than jiggy pub music, except this time there’s a twist. While the band plays the sounds of a bar room brawl grow increasingly noticeable, to the point that by the end of the song it’s a wonder the acordian player doesn’t get brained by a barstool. I can’t help but smile when I hear this one.

The next two songs are “The Mermaid” and “Bold Jack,” both of which are decent ditties, but unremarkable.

“Fifteen Men (Bottle o’Rum)” is likely a familiar song to most. Considering its brutally pirate roots, as well as the morbid gidiness with which Skip Henderson sang “Billy Bones,” I had high hopes for this song. Unfortunately, whatever brilliance he injected into “Billy Bones” isn’t apparent in this song. Skip clearly tried for that same genuinely-performed-by-pirates sound, but it comes across as a bit more tame and folky.

“Kerry Recuit” is an amusing ditty about a young soldier being given his GI materials and then sent off to war.

The next batch of songs – “We’re All Bound to Go”, “Two Waltzes”, “Sailor’s Consolation”, and “Porter”, are all nice little ditties, but once again unremarkable.

“Chivalrous Shark” is a nice change of pace. A bit naughty and very amusing, this song tells of a “maneating” shark that has no interest in the ladies. Cleverly done, and definitely funny.

“Oliver Martin (Whiskey Harbor)” is yet another little ditty.

Last on the agenda is “Song of a Ship,” which is a genuinely touching tribute ot the beauty and magic of ships.

It seems this album is about 80% “nice little ditties,” which might make for decent background music, but don’t really stand on their own (unless you’re really into ditties – I freely admit that I am not.) A few songs (“Two Hornpipes”, “Fifteen Men”, and “Chivalrous Shark”) are more worthy of note, but make up a minority of the total songs.

What really gets my goat about this album is “Billy Bones” – it’s so well done, so traditional yet piratey – it makes me want to cry that there aren’t more songs like this. With it Skip Henderson gives us a peek at how truly brilliant folksy pirate music can be, which makes the rest of the album seem that much more lackluster in comparison.

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