Tags: 1914 Newfoundland
In 1914, when the old sealer Newfoundland
Laid in her coal and fired up her steam
We were boys from the outports who vied for a berth
To the ice for the rituals of spring.
Though we knew of the hardships of life as a sealer
The black tea and hardtack for meals;
It was a time when the life of a good man
Was worth less than profits from seals.
Out from St. John’s on a course for the icefields,
The wind in her spars and the sea rolling high;
We’d be the highliner, the first to the main patch
Where seals were just waiting to die.
Hell-bent-for-leather we steamed to the north’ard,
All hands in the hold for the run;
None of us knew of the fate waiting for us,
Or dreamed of the hell yet to come.
We’ll never go swilin’ again
Never again will we sail to the ice;
We’ll dance with the ghosts of the Greenland boys
For the Newfoundland merchantmen we paid the price.
We reached the ice and burned down for the evening,
Made ready our gaffs for the ~ of the sun;
The harps and the whitecoats were there for the taking,
And we’d try to take every one!
But first light came slow, for the glass showed foul weather,
As the wind blew a gale from the north;
Still, we slipped o’er the sides of the ship to the ice,
To go swilin’ for what it was worth.
The ice heaved beneath us as we ranged from the Newfoundland
Sculping the whitecoats and earning our pay;
We laboured hard till we turned the ice crimson,
And thought we were done for the day.
But after our tea the skipper said, “Right, boys,
There’s plenty of seals on the floe.”
And he sent us back out to the rafters and pans,
While the air became thicker with snow.
For the rest of the day we roamed on the ice pans
In fear of our lives in the oncoming storm;
The whitecoats knew better and turned to the water,
When we turned to our ship it was gone!
Do you know what it’s like to be lost in a blizzard,
When you don’t even know where you’ve been?
You’d trade your soul just to hear a ship’s whistle,
Instead of the wail of the wind.
For two soul-weary days, and bone-freezing nights,
We were left just like whitecoats to die on the ice;
You’d swear there was no one in heaven above,
My God, that was no paradise!
And the ghosts of the Greenland came calling to haunt us,
They sailed on the wind and they danced in the dark;
But the will to survive in us burned like a candle,
And gave us some warmth in our hearts.
Each moment we stayed on the ice was a year,
We’d frozen our limbs and were blinded by snow;
So lost in that white hell that went on forever,
With no one to say where to go.
And then one by one we fell to the ice,
Though we tried everything to keep warm;
Some died while singing, others died prayin’,
And some wandered off in the storm.
When a ship finally found us and took us aboard,
We’d lost all our courage, we’d run out of time;
And sixty-nine dead men were stowed on her steel decks,
Along with the crippled and blind.
And we sailed from the ice in a following sea,
With a cargo so grim that we cried;
And those bastards in St. John’s did nothing for the families
Of those who had suffered and died.
Lyrics from Canadian Folk Music Bulletin (notated melody and chords also available).