Similarly to last month’s post on my presentation at PCA-South in New Orleans October 2-5th, this month’s post will share the presentation that I will give at the AFS (American Folklore Society) annual conference October 19-22. My paper will focus on the lyrics of the sea chantey “Sacramento” and how the narrative reveals an aggressive sexual narrative that I wanted to investigate more deeply. The argument I venture is that the song, sung as a collective means to spur on work and facilitate the brotherhood of the forecastle, is a representation of a shared and collective aggression visited on the body of a surrogate. The eighteenth and nineteenth-century sailing ship was a space of immense and also petty suffering, danger, and filth not to mention almost wholly disconnected from land, filled with places at which sailors could be deceived and lorded over, and a place where one likely felt as though his body was something that no longer belonged wholly to him. It would make sense that when all of these different frustrations and sufferings were brought together, especially in one tight space, that those who found themselves in such environments would need some kind of pressure valve through which to release the pent-up emotion. In spaces like sea chanteys, I argue that sailors may have channeled their emotions toward a particular object and used that object in the same ways that they likely often felt they were used themselves. The surrogate becomes the symbolic way through which sailors articulate feelings of subordination, literal and symbolic rape, and a sense of helplessness or impotence. As well, in representing these emotions through the symbolic surrogate, sailors also deploy a collective rage that not only distances themselves from the surrogate but also places them in the collective position of domination over the subordinated and violated object. In the space of “Sacramento,” I argue that the woman becomes a representation of the suffering of sailors and also a means through which sailors can try to reclaim a sense of power and domination within an environment where they often have little to no control over what happens to them or their bodies.
In “Sacramento,” the narrative details clear aggression and anger (denoted through the language used to describe the woman), articulates a sense of helplessness, and closes with a collective force that succeeds in gaining the singing sailors at least some agency in the face of their collective subordination. I contend that the body of the woman, then, becomes a surrogate for the anger of the sailors (based on their subordinated status) and she also becomes the way through which sailors solidify and celebrate their homosocial bond. From the beginning of “Sacramento,” the female characters are referred to as either “bitches” or remain nameless, noted only through descriptions of what they look like and what they ultimately give to the sailors (venereal disease). The song commences with “As I wuz rollin’ down the street/Hoodah, to me hoodah!/Two charmin’ bitches I did meet.” By opening the song in this way, the sailors accomplish two things: representing their anger and aggression through base name-calling but also venting that frustration and thereby actively expelling the aggression as they are employed in their ship board work. The women become, through using the term “bitch” to denote them, othered characters that are not only different from the sailing men singing but also likely less than and open to subordination by the singing men. In discussing the term “bitch,” sociolinguist Scott Kiesling shows that “We have evidence that ‘bitch’ is associated with this subordinate role through another derogatory terms used by the men: ‘bitch boy.’ This term is loaded with dominant-subordinate meaning: first through ‘bitch,’ and second through the term ‘boy’, also used to refer to a servant” 1 Though Kiesling is discussing modern fraternity rituals and mores, his discussion is useful in highlighting the ways in which language works to frame, categorize, and ultimately shape identity or association. When a term like “bitch” is used or hurled at someone, the term carries with it a pejorative association for both men and women. The most salient aspect of Kiesling’s findings, however, at least in terms of the beginning of this particular chantey, is the fact that the term has the capability of demoting someone as less than a man or, possibly, an “othered” identity close to a woman. He highlights the way in which the term functions to literally “subordinate” the receiver of the epithet and it is understood that to be a “bitch” or a “bitch boy” is to be akin to a servant. A subordinated person is often the focus of repeated hazing and maltreatment, especially in terms of the early modern sailing ship and, in this way, the female characters in the song become both a representation of the status of the men on ship (or, at least, how they perceive themselves on ship) and also becomes an object through which the sailors might symbolically avenge themselves. In terms of the early modern sailing ship, the pejorative phrase that would demote a seaman to a position akin to the “bitch” would be the epithet “boy.” Charles Tyng shows in Before the Wind, in his first voyage, that “I was called the boy, I suppose because I was the smallest, and the youngest, and was called to all the dirty jobs” (19). Throughout early modern maritime history, it is clear that captains and mates often assigned the most difficult and unsavory tasks not only to ship’s boys but also to other sailors who were in need of discipline and that these tasks were dealt to those who were viewed as subordinated in some way or the target of the mate’s ire. Identifying a sailor as a “boy” would relegate him to the subordinated position where he might be abused and maltreated, ultimately rendering the sailor a figure in some ways similar to the “bitch” or “bitches” in the song. Rediker shows, In Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, that “As Richard B. Morris wrote, ‘Masters frequently drove their crews to the limit of endurance by bullying, profane threats, and the unsavory practice of hazing or ‘working up,’ which consisted of assigning dirty, disagreeable, and dangerous tasks to a particular seaman, too often as a means of settling personal grudges’” (217). Wedding the historical framework, the modern fraternity linguistic research, and the song, by identifying the women as “bitches,” from the beginning,” sailors are not only identifying them as objects of focus for their anger and aggression but are ordering them as subordinated objects which they can abuse as they please because they ultimately represent the same position the men feel they occupy or have occupied within their own lives. The hurling of such a name, from the beginning, may also stem from the later realization that at least one of the women infected a sailing man with venereal disease and is therefore worthy of ire and base name-calling.
Like the use of “bitch” to order the women as subordinated objects to be abused, the venereal disease mentioned in the song produces two separate and important readings of the text that further solidifies the argument that the song provides a symbolic space through which the men might attempt to combat their subordinated status. Primarily, the venereal disease is an articulation of a true and sincere malady that sailors often had to combat and thereby functions as an opportunity to collectively address the anger the men might feel at the object who, to them, gave them the disease (i.e. the “bitches” who opened the song). Evidence from Naval ships’ surgeon’s logs indicate that venereal disease was one of the chief illnesses for which sailors sought the expertise of the surgeon. The history between sailors, prostitutes, and venereal disease is long and voluminous; however, it is the second and deeper reading of venereal disease, here, which is important. I contend that the arrival of venereal disease, in this chantey, serves the purpose of also representing the vulnerability, in general, of the sailor’s body and his reliance on others, outside of himself, for protection and wellbeing. When the sailors sing “She wuz the one that gave me the pox./Off to the doctor I did go,/Prick an balls I had to show” the sailor is required to place himself in an uncomfortable and exposed position, placing himself at the mercy of the surgeon. “By getting’ a knot on me ol’ jibboom,” the fictitious sailor character represents the vulnerability of the body, standing in to not only represent the ability of the body to succumb to disease, but also hearkening to the various ways in which the body of the sailor is at the mercy of external dangers and maladies that could befall him at any moment. In the framework of the song, the sailor sings how “IN came the nurse with a mustard poultice,/Chapped it on but I took no notice./In came the doctor with a bloody big lance:/Now, young sailor, I’ll make yer dance” which serves the dual purpose of both expressing what a sailor likely endured when he was stricken with the pox; however, it also works to highlight the vulnerability of the sailing body and how it is not only open to the dangers and diseases that abound in the sailing world but also must look to others, like the surgeon, for his safety and for curing his ailments. Specifically, in the line that reads “Now, young sailor, I’ll make yer dance,” the sailors appear to capture the frightening liminal quality of their lives between pain and health, death and life. In the moment at which the surgeon approaches the sailor to “cure” him of his batch of the pox, the surgeon becomes a frightening figure who holds in his power the ability to cure the sailor but also seems to gain a margin of pleasure in seeing the sailor in pain. In this interaction, the sailor is subordinated to the surgeon and it is the surgeon who holds sadistic power over the afflicted man. “Dance,” in this line, obviously summons the perverted image of how the immense pain that will be inflicted on the body of the sailor will make him move and jump about as if dancing and the dance is commenced by the penetration of the surgeon’s lance into the affected boil on the sailor’s penis.
Because the sailor finds himself in this position, he would clearly be ready to find someone for which to blame his painful trip to the surgeon, but the woman in the text is also the reminder of his subordinated status to both the surgeon and also to fate. The woman who “gave me the pox” is the first target at which the sailor might find his ire placed because within her is bound the dual recognition of the harbinger of the sailors’ pain and also the reaffirming of his subordinated status. Aggression and violence are each ways in which men might vent their anger and frustration and within “Sacramento,” the retribution is assertive and actively violent. Sailors would sing “Sing, me boys, oh, heave an’ sing,/Heave an’ make her arse-hole spring” which jointly encourages the continued work of the ship while also channeling the collective power and strength toward the “arse-hole” of a woman. In fact, the sailors are encouraged to heave with such strength that they succeed in making the woman’s arse-hole spring, indicating that the orifice would be forcibly pushed with such power that it would spring open. The act and the line join together both expected workplace execution of duties and also the inherent disagreement with the ill-treatment and subordination that occurs within that workspace. The woman’s arse-hole arises as both a space where men vent their frustration concerning the real and often lived experience of contracting venereal disease from a woman, but also serves as a hyberbolic channel through which they express their anger toward their own experiences on the sailing ship. RW Connell, in the seminal Masculinities, makes the argument that “the privileged group [men] use violence to sustain their dominance. . . Most episodes of major violence (counting military combat, homicide and armed assault) are transactions among men. . .[and it] can become a way of claiming or asserting masculinity in group struggles” 2 Based on Connell’s comments, I contend that sailors are visiting their frustrations, together, on the receiving hole of the woman. Because of their own subordination on the sailing ship, men are in a position where they would desire to reclaim their masculine position and authority and it is possible to do that through subordinating another object. Subordination through penetration is a trope of many representations of masculine struggle. In fact, Mickey Weems argues, in his chapter titled “Taser to the ‘Nads,” that “Analysis of cussing reveals a theme in sexual discourse for men: penetrating is good, being penetrated is demeaning. A penetrated man is a defeated man, an effeminate man, a weakling, a laughingstock, and this notion goes back thousands of years…A man penetrated by another man is no longer a real man, much as a woman whose vagina is penetrated by a man’s penis is no longer a virgin” 3 An obvious way through which a man might re-secure his dominance and masculine authority would be through sexually dominating another. To do this, collectively, would help to reinforce the primacy of the brotherhood of the forecastle but would also solidify a collective masculine force that has the power to fight back against subordination and the loss of control.
The object of focus, the woman’s anus, becomes the focal point of the collective revenge and dominance and the triangular connection between the men. This triangular connection succeeds in both assuaging the collective anger of the group but also solidifies the connection between the men. This triangular relationship is similar to the one described in Eve Sedgwick’s Between Men, a text that was highlighted in last month’s post, as well. The idea of the woman as the center and focal point between two men is salient here, as well, in that the woman’s anus within the song becomes the connecting point between the men venting their collective frustration. She also becomes the object through which the men bond and also expel their stress and anger. “Sing, me boys, oh, heave an’ sing,/Heave and make her arse-hole spring!” rallies the men to their collective task (and instructs them in that process) and also focuses the collective strength and force onto the “arse-hole” of the woman. In fact, the men are instructed to heave with such force that the woman’s anus is sprung, meaning that the power and aggression forces the anus to “bounce” open or gape with the force of the collective intrusion. Through this collective force, the men are both working together to dominate the erotic object (while also working together to complete the tasks of the ship); however, they are also bonding in and through the process of eroticizing and brutalizing the body of the woman. Though Sedgwick is discussing Shakespeare’s sonnets, her chapter “Swan in Love” is relevant here in that it outlines the way through which men utilize the heterosexual situation in order to facilitate the masculine bond. She argues that “My point is of course again not that we are here in the presence of homosexuality (which would be anachronistic) but rather (risking anachronism) that we are in the presence of male heterosexual desire, in the form of a desire to consolidate partnership with authoritative males in and through the bodies of females” 4 The men are bonding not only through sexualizing the woman’s body but are also bonding through collectively exacting revenge on the woman who is the originator of the fictive sailor’s pains. In a way, sailors are participating in a collective schadenfreude where they not only delight in the pain and suffering of another, but are active in the process of facilitating that pain. James Scott argues, in his Dominance and the Arts of Resistance, that “Fantasy life among dominated groups is also likely to take the form of schadenfreude: joy at the misfortunes of others” 5 The sailors are subordinated not only by the daily injustices of their lives but are also often victims of the very same tragedies that befell the fictive sailor within the narrative of “Sacramento.” They recognize in him their own suffering and attach their resentment onto the character of the woman as she is the primary originator of the pain described within the song. Were it not for the sailor choosing “the one with the curly locks,” he would not be in the situation he finds himself in “Sacramento”; thus, sailors would delight in consuming the narrative of the sailor’s retribution and imagining the woman’s pain. Scott’s primary argument is that subordinated people will band together, often through what he terms “hidden transcripts,” to fight the power structure that subordinates them. I contend that the arse-hole of the woman becomes, then, a complex and multi-layered object when it is produced in the space of “Sacramento.” The arse-hole is a means through which the sailing men bond together and exact revenge (a-la Sedgwick), is a celebration of the pain and suffering dealt to an object of anger and distaste (a-la Scott), and finally a means through which sailors symbolically fight the subordination they feel in the restrictive confines of their watery vocation.
The woman in “Sacramento” thus represents something much larger than simply an erotic object. This is not to say that the body of the woman is not eroticized; however, my argument is that through collectively eroticizing her body with aggressive force to the point of damage and pain renders the woman a vessel of sorts who both succeeds in bonding the men together and assuaging the collective frustration they must have felt. The sailor’s life was one that was full of subordination, discomfort, and danger; it is little wonder that some chanteys contain sub-narratives that harbor a measure of this infuriation. Venereal disease, subordination from higher-ranking officials on ship, scant little food supply, and daily dangers are certainly enough to stoke frustration: this aggression explodes onto the female surrogate in “Sacramento” and I would argue that the same narrative frustration exists in other sea chantey texts. Future analyses will focus on specifically unpacking the ways in which particular narrative elements stand in as symbolic representations of specific maritime indignities. For me, sea chantey narratives produce far more than simply spaces where men collectively consume the eroticized bodies of both men and women. Chanteys are a space in which sailing men used narrative to express their lived existence under the cover of narrative elements that present one idea to the outside world while covering a “hidden transcript” perhaps known only to the men who sang the songs.
- Scott Fabius Kiesling, “Playing the Straight Man: Displaying and Maintaining Male Heterosexuality in Discourse.” (n.d.): 249-266, British Library Document Supply Centre Inside Serials & Conference, 264
- RW Connell, Masculinities, (California: University of California Press, 1995), 83
- Mickey Weems, Warrior Ways: Explorations in Modern Military Folklore, 139-160. (Logan, UT: Utah State UP), 142
- Eve Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 38
- James C. Scott, Domination and the arts of resistance:hidden transcripts (New Haven : Yale University Press, c1990), 41