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Friday, September 9, 2016

"Out with the anchors, out with the boats!" The fate and story of Bluebird of Hull

A poem should be feasible, but truly true it never agrees on being - Evert Taube

Born in Gothenburg on the West Coast of Sweden, Evert Taube (1890-1976) remains as one of the country’s most celebrated writers and singers.

Taube spent his childhood in Vinga, a small island in Kattegat, where fishing, sailing and stories about foreign countries and ports were a natural part of the upbringing. This might explain the tremendous wanderlust which hit quite early in his life; already at 17 he went to sea, eventually ending up in Argentina in 1910. Five eventful years followed after the arrival; Taube worked as an assistant in the construction of the irrigation canals, as a train conductor in Cordoba, as a cartoonists and journalist, as well as acting as an adjutant for the president of Argentina (!). He became an Argentine citizen, learned to speak Spanish and Italian, to sing tango melodies, and last, but not least – he learned how to play the guitar.

Not until 1915 – due to the outbreak of World War I – Evert Taube returned home to Sweden, and in 1921, he published his first record. The years that followed, Taube truly became what we can call a household name, and a voice of the Swedish national soul. The ballad of the brig Blue Bird of Hull, remains as one of the many highlights in his career. First published in 1929 in «Fritiofsberg Andersson visbok», the song tells the story of a fictional shipwreck on Christmas Eve 1872.

As the subtitle of the song, Evert Taube wrote: "True event, narrated by Fritiofsberg Andersson, whose father joined the rescue boat, when the Bluebird’s crew where rescued”. In so doing, Taube gave the impression that the incident actually took place. In reality, the ballad is more likely inspired by several different accounts of shipwrecks. Although there was a ship by the name of «Bluebird», which wrecked in a storm in August 1871, the real “Bluebird” was rescued and brought safely to shore. In 1872 there were severe storms in November, affecting many vessels, yet there are no reports of sunken ship on Christmas Eve 1872.

Arvid Ahlberg, Örlogsskepp vid Vinga (eng. 'Warship near Vinga), 1887

Nevertheless – Taubes’ ballad remains by far as one of the most heartbreaking songs I have ever encountered.  

The brig "Blue Bird" of Hull sets sails towards Hallo lighthouse near Smögen, on the west coast of Sweden. A raging snowstorm prevails, the rig is icy, and the storm threatens to drive the ship against the rocks. The wind is so fierce, that it is not even possible for the helmsman to remain at the helm. Then the captain shouts "Tie up the Swede to the helm, he can wield a rudder!"

The Swede, a young man named Karl Stranne, is considered to be one hell of a steersman. If there is anyone capable of saving the ship from the impending catastrophe, it is Karl Stranne. He is tied to the helm, and half blind through the sleet and spray, the Swede skillfully steers away from the looming cliffs. "Out with the anchors, out with the boats!" commands the captain, but the heavy sea smashes the lifeboat into pieces. However, the steward of Smögen, Håkan Stranne, Karl's father, sets out with his boat in the storm, and manages to maneuver the boat in the lee of the anchored brig. In a matter of minutes, the crew is rescued.

Safely accommodated in the Stranne family’s house, Håkan asks for the name of the brig. When the captain answers "Blue Bird of Hull," Håkan cries desperately "God in heaven, Captain, then where is my son?"

And the captain got up, he was gray, he was grim
The storm howled, one could barely hear his words
when he said, with a trembling voice, to his host
"Karl was tied to the helm, and forgotten on board.
The following version is exquisitely performed by Swedish singer/songwriter Sofia Karlsson, first published on her album "Visor från vinden" in 2007.


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