Pirate Song, 1921. Henry F. Gilbert, 1886-1928. Music Division, Library of Congress. Call number: M1621.G
Gilbert's Pirate Song was first published by the Wa-Wan Press, which was founded by composer Arthur Farwell in 1901. The purpose of the Press, named for an Omaha Indian ceremony meaning "to sing to someone," was to publish American works that broke with European tradition. Gilbert worked alongside Farwell in promoting a distinctly American style. Gilbert also advocated for the use of humor in compositions, and the Pirate Song falls into that category of work.
The present edition was issued by the H. W. Gray Co. in 1921. Gilbert adapted words from Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island with added stanzas by Alice C. Hyde. The opening baritone solo, "Fifteen men on a dead man's chest," elicits the first of many pirate responses, "Yo ho ho, and a bottle of rum." The men's chorus sings in unison throughout except for the penultimate dominant-seventh chord at the end of the work. The baritone solo, on the other hand, is quite elaborate and vocally demanding with an occasional high F and G. The melodic line is also challenging with frequent tri-tones and unexpected chromatic turns. The piano harmonies contain half-diminished chords and a number of dissonances, not the traditional diatonic, triadic harmonies of most sea shanties. Archibald T. Davison, conductor of the Harvard University Glee Club, wrote to Gilbert on May 24, 1923, "[If I] had known earlier that you disapproved of our performance of the Pirate Song, I should have tried to get you to come to a rehearsal to show us how to do it." Since the choral parts are so simple, one can only surmise that the baritone soloist might have encountered some difficulties.
- Archibald T. Davison, letter to Henry Gilbert, May 24, 1923. The Gilbert Papers, MSS 35, Irving S. Gilmore Library, Yale University (Box 31/48), cited in Sherill V. Martin, Henry F. Gilbert: A Bio-bibliography (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004), p. 100. [back to article]