Bob Watson says: “Strictly the mollymauk (spelt by some as ‘mollymawk’— either seems acceptable) is one of several species of the albatross family, which all look similar to non-ornithologists. Legend has it that these big birds (usually encountered far from land) were embodiments of the souls of sailors who died at sea… if you killed one, you were killing the ghost of another sailor, maybe a former shipmate. Scandinavian and Germanic sailors referred to it as the ‘molomac,’ which got corrupted by English-speaking sailors to ‘Molly hawk’—mentioned in shanties like ‘The Ebenezer’— and then ‘mollymauk.’
“The very word beguiled me from the first … evocative, full of magical promise — musical, narrative, lyrical … and it took two years (and five different versions) before the song that you know came about. When it did it was sudden, with bits of text from most of the previous versions translating themselves seamlessly into the new format, to a new tune pattern inspired by a picture of a steamship on a table mat in someone’s dining room.
“So much fuss, so many revisions, and then POW!—just happens.
“For a time, the tune attracted no particular attention except from people who complained that ‘Down below Cape Horn’ was too low for them; then one day I sang it at a shanty festival singaround, and must have accidentally got the right key, because the room went quiet, then loud with response and chorus singing, and after that it seemed like everyone either knew it or wanted to, and some sang it so well that I became trepidacious about singing it myself. It helped that Danny and Joyce McLeod were sitting next to me at the singaround; Danny called the song ‘canny,’ and asked to take it into his repertoire … whence it went onto CDs by his groups The Keelers and Salt of the Earth, and into the songbags and CDs of other artists… circa twelve recordings, in the USA, New Zealand, Holland, and Poland, as well as here in the UK. Also four versions on YouTube, including a track from my own Shaggy Bob Story (which is itself no more than a decorative demo!).”
Bob Watson can be reached at ROM Watson, 9 Compton Close, Earley, Reading RG67EA, UK; email at
Margaret DuBois says: “I used the tune of ‘Broken Down Squatter,’ which I heard from Thad Binkley, who learned from a Gordon Bok recording. Gordon Bok says he learned it from Ray Wales and from the Penguin Australian Songbook.
“The compiler of the book states that the ‘Broken Down Squatter’ was written by Charles Flower around the 1880s. The tune has evidently been ‘folk processed.’” It can be seen in something closer to its original version at sniff.numachi.com/pages/tiBRKSQUAT;ttBRKSQUAT.html.
To hear “Remember the Exxon Valdez” on YouTube, sung by Thad Binkley, search for “Thad Binkley” or www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-khSeX1lm0.
The folknik song pages are lovingly produced by Kay Eskenazi, John Kelly, and Barbara Millikan. John Kelly produced the song pages for this issue.
If you’d like to submit a song for possible publication, please send a score, tape/CD or (preferably) both to —