Moby Dick Research

Here’s the research we’re currently embarking on for Moby Dick. We’ll be building on it as it goes.

R&D Concert Performance

Whaling Industry

Good images of whaling ships


Really like this version –

Love the drone and throbbing drum underneath, could live without the guitar though! Apparently it’s a capstan song which is why it’s got that great stamp and go rhythm. Definitely something to play with – and the sound is really similar to the grotowski / eastern european drone stuff we love like.

Another two sea songs with a great dark male voice tone:

97th Regimental String Band – Blood-Red Roses (Sea Shanty)


Here another version of Blood Red Roses, interesting harmony on the chorus:

The beginning of this one is great:


Bono Solo – A Dying Sailor To His Shipmates


Interesting Theatre Styles:



World folk and drone interesting for style:

Brave Festival 2009 – Irkutsk Ensemble Authentic Music (1)


Byzantine chant – Monks of Monastery Simonopetras – Athos

 Trad Folk lyrics NOT NECESSARILY musical style

Here’s some more whaling songs / shanties etc. Greenland Whale fisheries is particularly interesting lyrically as it tells the story of an entire voyage right up till hunting the whale:

Interestingly here’s an American version of Santa Anna with pro-US lyrics – really like the simplicity of just voices in this one:

Sea Folk Lyrics

Blood Red Roses

Our boots and clothes are all in pawn
Go down, you blood red roses, Go down.

And its mighty drafty ’round Cape Horn,
Go down, you blood red roses, Go down.

cho: Oh, you pinks and posies,
Go down, you blood red roses, Go down.

My dear old mother said to me,
My dearest son, come home from sea.

It’s ’round Cape Horn we all must go
‘Round Cape Horn in the frost and snow.

You’ve got your advance, and to sea you’ll go
To chase them whales through the frost and snow.

It’s ’round Cape Horn you’ve got to go,
For that is where them whalefish blow.

It’s growl you may, but go you must,
If you growl too much your head they’ll bust.

Just one more pull and that will do
For we’re the boys to kick her through.

Santa Anno

Santy Anno gained the day (or pro US: Tell me have you heard the news)
Away Santy Anno
Santy Anno gained the day (or pro US: The Yanks have captured Veracruz)
All on the plains of Mexico
Mexico Oh Mexico
way Santy Anno
Mexico is a place I know
All on the plains of Mexico
Liverpool girls aint got no comb
Away Santy Anno
They comb their hairs with a kipperback bone
All on the plains of Mexico
Them yaller skinned girls I do adore
With their shinin’ eyes and their cold black hair
Why do them yaller girls love me so
Because I won’t tell them all I know
When I was a young man in me prime
I knocked them scouse girls two at a time
Skipper likes whiskey, the maid likes rum
The crow likes both but we can’t get none
Times is hard and the wages low
It’s time for us to roll and go
Santy Anno gained the day
Away Santy Anno Santy
Anno gained the day
All on the plains of Mexico

Greenland Whale Fisheries

Oh in eighteen hundred and fourty four,
On March the 18 day,
We hoisted our colours to the top of the mast,
And for greenland bore away, brave boys,
And for greenland bore away.

The lookout on the main mast stood
With a spyglass in his hand;
There’s a whale, there’s a whale,
There’s whalefish he cried
And she blows at every span, brave boys
She blows at every span.

The captain stood on the quarter deck,
The ice was in his eye,
Overhaul, overhaul! let your gib sheet fall,
And go put your boats to sea, brave boys
And go put your boats to sea.

The boats were lowered and the men aboard,
And the whale was full in view.
Resolved resolved  was each whalerman bold
For to steer where the whalefish blew, brave boys
For to steer where the whalefish blew.

The harpoon stuck the line paid out,
With a single flourish with her tail,
She capsized our boat and we lost five men,
And we did not caught that whale, brave boys,
And we did not caught that whale.

The loosing of those five jolly men,
It grieved our captain sore,
But the loosing of that sperm whale fish
Now it grieved him ten times more, brave boys
Now it grieved him ten times more.

A flanker now our captain cried
The winter star doth now appear,
It’s time to leave this cold country,
And for England we will steer, brave boys,
And for England we will steer.

For greenland is a barren land,
A land that’s never green
Where there’s ice and snow, and the whalefishes blow
And the daylight’s seldom seen, brave boys,
and the daylight’s seldom seen.


From Chapter 39- First Night-Watch, Fore-Top

We’ll drink to-night with hears as light,
To love, as gay and fleeting
As bubbles that swim, on the beaker’s brim, And break on the lips while meeting. “

From Chapter 40- Midnight, Forecastle, Harpooneers and Sailors

‘”(Foresail rises and discovers the watch standing, lounging, leaning, and lying in various attitudes, all singing in chorus.)

‘Farewell and adieu to you, Spanish ladies! Farewell and adieu to you, ladies of Spain!

Our captain’s commanded.-
1st Nantucket Sailor:
‘Oh, boys, don’t be sentimental; it’s bad for the digestion! Take a tonic, follow me! (Sings, and all follow)

‘Our captain stood upon the deck, A spy-glass in his hand,
A viewing of those gallant whales That blew at every strand.

Oh, your tubs in your boats, my boys, And by your braces stand,
And we’ll have one of those fine whales, hand, boys, over hand!

So be cheery, my lads! may your hears never fail! While the bold harpooner is striking the whale!

From Chapter 119- The Candles

Oh! jolly is the gale,
And a joker is the whale,
A’ flourishin’ his tail,-
Such a funny, sporty, gamy, jesty, joky, hoky-poky lad, is the Ocean, oh!

The scud all a flyin’,
That’s his flip only foamin’;
When he stirs in the spicin’,-
Such a funny, sporty, gamy, jesty, joky, hoky-poky lad, is the Ocean, oh!

Thunder splits the ships,
But he only smacks his lips,
A tastin’ of this flip,-
Such a funny, sporty, gamy, jesty, joky, hoky-poky lad, is the Ocean, oh!

 Moby Dick – Summary

Our intrepid narrator, a former schoolteacher famously called Ishmael, signs up as sailor on a whaling voyage to cure a bout of depression. On his way to find a ship in Nantucket, he meets Queequeg, a heavily tattooed South Sea Island harpooneer just returned from his latest whaling trip. Ishmael and Queequeg become best buds and roommates almost immediately. Together, they sign up for a voyage on the Pequod, which is just about to start on a three-year expedition to hunt sperm whales.

On board the Pequod, Ishmael meets the mates − honest Starbuck, jolly Stubb, and fierce Flask − and the other harpooneers, Tashtego and Daggoo. The ship’s commander, Captain Ahab, remains secluded in his cabin and never shows himself to the crew. The mates organize the beginning of the voyage as though there were no captain.

Just when Ishmael’s curiosity about Ahab has reached a fever pitch, Ahab starts appearing on deck – and we find out that he’s missing one leg. When Starbuck asks if it was Moby Dick, the famous White Whale, that took off his leg, Ahab admits that it was and forces the entire crew to swear that they will help him hunt Moby Dick to the ends of the earth and take revenge for his injury. They all swear. After this strange incident, things settle into a routine on board the good ship Pequod. While they’re always on the lookout for Moby Dick, the crew has a job to do: hunting sperm whales, butchering them, and harvesting the sperm oil that they store in huge barrels in the hold.

Ishmael takes advantage of this lull in plot advancement to give the reader lots of contemporary background information about whale biology, the whaling industry, and sea voyages. The Pequod encounters other ships, which tell them the latest news about the White Whale. Oh yeah, and everyone discovers that Ahab has secretly smuggled an extra boat crew on board (led by a mysterious, demonic harpooneer named Fedallah) to help Ahab do battle with Moby Dick once they do find him.

Over the course of more than a year, the ship travels across the Atlantic, around the southern tip of Africa, through the Indian Ocean, among the islands of southeast Asia, into the Sea of Japan, and finally to the equator in the Pacific Ocean – Moby Dick’s home turf.

Despite first mate Starbuck’s misgivings and a variety of bad omens (e.g., all the navigational instruments break, a typhoon tries to push the ship backwards, and the Pequod encounters other ships that have lost crewmembers to Moby Dick’s wrath), Ahab insists on continuing to pursue his single-minded revenge quest. In a parody of the Christian ceremony of baptism, he goes so far as to dip his specially forged harpoon in human blood– just so that he’ll have the perfect weapon with which to kill Moby Dick.

Finally, just when we think the novel’s going to end without ever seeing this famous White Whale, Ahab sights him and the chase is on. For three days, Ahab pursues Moby Dick, sending whaling boat after whaling boat after him – only to see each one wrecked by the indomitable whale. Finally, at the end of the third day, the White Whale attacks the ship itself, and the Pequod goes down with all hands.

Even while his ship is sinking, Ahab, in his whaling boat, throws his harpoon at Moby Dick one last time. He misses, catching himself around the neck with the rope and causing his own drowning/strangling death.

The only survivor of the destruction is Ishmael, who lives to tell the tale because he’s clinging to the coffin built for his pal Queequeg when the harpooneer seemed likely to die of a fever.

Tom’s Thesis

So, Moby-Dick – the most important thing to get right, I think, is Melville’s grandiose, poker-faced, sadistic, dryly hilarious tone. Here’s an attempt to explain it. There is a widespread tendency in American literature of the C19 for authors to include elements in their work that are strongly marked as symbolic of something, but not to give the reader much of a clue of what they mean to symbolize – take a look at Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stephen Crane, Edgar Allan Poe – but mainly Melville. George Santayana identifies this using a great phrase, the “penumbra and fringe of suggestion.” The idea behind this kind of thing is an idealist one – that the truth about the nature of the universe is beyond human expression, and so all attempts to describe the world must allude in some way to the impossibility of their task.

To take a famous example from Moby-Dick: the sinister harpooneer Fedallah prophecies to Capt. Ahab that he will see two hearses on the sea before he dies. At the end of the book, just before he dies, Ahab decides that his ship, the Pequod, is one of these hearses, and we get the sentence “’The ship! The hearse!—the second hearse!’ cried Ahab from the boat; ‘its wood could only be American!’” Now clearly we’re being asked to see some Moby-Dick as a symbol for America itself, but Melville nowhere explains the nature of that symbolism. This sort of thing happens all the time in Moby-Dick. Lots of critics have spent much time trying to figure out why the Pequod is a hearse whose “wood could only be American,” but to my mind that’s not really the point of the exercise. Rather, what’s more interesting and important about Melville, I think, is the tone that this constant deployment of the “penumbra and fringe of suggestion” creates. That is, when you read Melville, you feel strongly that something deep and profound is trying to be communicated to you, but you also get the impression that, behind a poker face that never slips, Melville is having a giant practical joke at your expense. This is what accounts for the Gothic humour that typifies all Melville’s writing – it’s grandiose, it’s funny, and it’s mean. A short Melville that would give you a sense of his style is Benito Cereno, about a slave mutiny on a Spanish ship. It is amazing and terrifying – it’s in no way graphic, but I felt physically sick when I first read it. For a more digestible version of the same kind of thing you could read Edgar Allan Poe’s short sketch “The Man of the Crowd,” Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, or listen to some Steely Dan…

Also, we might say that if Melville has a point, it’s that you as the reader get put in the same position as his narrator, Ishmael: Ishmael writes a giant, encyclopedic account of the nature of whales in order to try to understand their nature completely – but in the end Moby-Dick is beyond explanation – he’s just a big psychotic whale; we, as readers, expend all this effort trying to get at the grand truth Melville is constantly hinting to us that he will provide, but there is no grand truth – except the knowledge that absolute truth is impossible to attain.