The Fisherman’s Friends are shanty singers from Port Isaac who have delighted visitors and locals there for more than 15 years, with almost 300 live performances under their belts.
Down on the harbour front of the tiny fishing village of Port Isaac on the north Cornwall coast, the authentic sound of the shanty can be heard loud and clear via the mighty, brawny chorale of The Fisherman’s Friends. At around eight in the evening during the summer months, tourists and locals gather to hear this ten-man group mesh their voices in an incredibly rousing and joyful set of shanties and Cornish folk songs.
There’s no gang leader, no choir master and no holds barred in the singing of The Fisherman’s Friends. And fisherman’s friends they truly are – each and every member of this unique group are or have been fishermen, lifeboatmen and coastguards (as well as builders, artisans, hoteliers, and shop keepers) in Port Isaac.
They’ve known each other since childhood and learnt their powerful brand of Cornish harmony singing at the local Methodist chapel – now the pottery of Fisherman’s Friend Billy Hawkwins (baritone), where the group get together with a crate of ale and a good deal of bonhomie to rehearse their repertoire and try out new songs.
Their regular portside concerts have become a much-loved local institution and as the group prepare to release their first professional studio recordings, the authentic sound of the sea will soon be heard with a tour of the country’s festivals and concert halls.
Their album, recorded in the beautiful 15th-century church of St James in nearby St Kew, features a rich haul from their Port Isaac repertoire, including the likes of the classic South Australia (a video of their portside performance of the song has garnered over 55,000 hits) the haunting Cornish robber ballad The Cadgwith Anthem and the beautiful Brightly Beams, their mesh of Chapel-inspired harmonies rising out of a big-band folk setting.
Between them, Fisherman’s Friends are five baritones, two top tenors, two second tenors, and one bass. “We have a very full sound,” says Jon Cleave (bass). “You’ve got the different grades of baritone in the middle, which all blend, and then there are the tenor harmonies at the top and I do the bass underneath – so it makes a fat sound, a full sound, a solid wall of sound. Like Phil Spector.” Unusually for a singing group, each member will take the lead. At their regular Port Isaac summer sessions, they stand in a line and each leads a song, from one end of the line and back again, giving them a huge variety of sound and song, and drawing from a repertoire reaching back 200 years, and embracing songs and shanties not only from Cornwall but Liverpool, Ireland, Africa, the West Indian, and America.
English folk music has enjoyed a renaissance in the last decade, especially in the West Country, with the likes of Seth Lakeman, Jackie Oates, Show of Hands, and Jim Causley achieving widespread acclaim. Now, with Port Isaac’s Fisherman’s Friends, the Shanty Man is back in business. Be prepared to have your ears blown clean off…