Bill Dempsey is a songster of great talent and has released a number of disks, almost all of them centered on a theme. One was a CD of children’s songs; another featured original tunes. In 2007 he put out Shanty Man, a disk filled with songs of the sea and the romance of the days when men journeyed to faraway ports on tall sailing ships. With his new release, Round the Horn Dempsey returns to ships, sailing, and the simple and direct music they inspire.
I’ve reviewed other recordings of Dempsey’s, and as I’ve said before he is gifted with a marvelous baritone that resonates like a well-aged barrel of bourbon. Listening closely, it’s apparent that he’s had good vocal training, but he doesn’t let that get in the way of sounding like one of the most natural of singers. His rough-hewn approach lends a boatload of authenticity to these songs of long journeys, rough work, and the spray of the sea.
From the wistfulness and sadness of the calypso tune “Jamaica Farewell” and “If I Had a Ship,” to the boastfulness of “A Wife in Every Port,” these songs are all about a simpler life, a refreshing change from our post-modern world of irony and cynicism.
Longing, sadness, and wistfulness take a rest for at least a couple tunes. Dempsey resurrects Stan Rogers’ “The Mary Ellen Carter.” To the owners and the insurance company the sunken boat was simply a vessel, wood and steel and cables. To the crew the Mary Ellen Carter meant so much more: their work and camaraderie. As you hear Dempsey refrain in the chorus “Rise again!” the crew’s efforts to raise the boat affirm so much that is good in their lives.
Dempsey has some fun with Jesse Fuller’s “San Francisco Bay Blues.” We’re even treated to a cheesy kazoo solo, just as the one-man-band Fuller would have intended. And speaking of fun, remember “Eat Bertha’s Mussel,” the folk song that does more than wink and nod to the enhancing effects of Martha’s charming shellfish? Dempsey includes this gem, and it’s as much fun as when you giggled to the suggestive song back in junior high.
Back in the sixties, you could occasionally hear ballads on the radio; by the seventies they had grown as rare as Birkenstocks on a disco dance floor. One of the few ballads to make it to the airwaves back then, and one of the best, was Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Edmund Fitzgerald,” his song about the largest ship ever to sink on the Great Lakes. Dempsey strips the electric guitars, bass, and drums in his version of this profound song, bringing the lyrics to the foreground. He had me mesmerized recounting the story of the ship’s 29 lost lives.
All together the 16 songs on Round the Horn total 59 minutes of music. This is great. Disks should be filled to the brim with wonderful music. Dempsey has given us another marvelous and enjoyable CD. Two thumbs up!