Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Another Song: Mountain, Nantucket Sleighride

In just a few short minutes, I am headed to Nantucket Island, which was considered the whaling capital of the world in the 19th century .The term "Nantucket Sleighride" was coined by some old salts to explain the most immensely dangerous part of the whaling process process. The first strike of the harpoon was not intended to kill the whale but only to attach it to the whale boat. The whale would take off pulling the whale boat along at speeds of up to 23 mph (37 kmh). Once the whale had finally tired itself out, the leading officer would deliver the fatal blow with a penetrating lance and begin the arduous process of finding their way back to dry land.

The song "Nantucket Sleighride" is dedicated to Owen Coffin, a cabin boy aboard the whaling ship Essex, which was destroyed by a sperm whale in 1819. Owen ended up in the lifeboat with Captain Pollard, his uncle. Two other lifeboats also put out. During the next 3 - 4 months, the lifeboats separated. One was never seen again, but a certain few were destined to be part of the most memorable sea stories of all time.

During those long months at sea (and on desert islands), many of the men died. The survivors eventually had to resort to cannibalism to live. After those who died naturally were consumed, the men determined to draw lots to see who would sacrifice his life for the others. Owen Coffin "won" the lottery. The Captain tried to take Owen's place, but the youth insisted on his "right". The executioner was also drawn by lot. That "winner", another young man named Charles Ramsdell, also tried vainly to swap places with Owen. Again he refused. Owen's body kept the others alive for ten days, although Captain Pollard refused to eat his nephew. Another man died, and his body kept Pollard and Ramsdell alive a few more days until they were rescued.

The story of Owen Coffin still resonates on Nantucket Island and  certainly caught the attention of a young New York Jew named Leslie West. He and his band of Long Island Vagrants would eventually play Woodstock under the moniker Mountain and record an amazing album named after this an album that would bear the name, Nantucket Sleighride. 

Mountain - Nantucket Sleighride

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