Greenland Whale Fisheries

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This article is about the folk song. For whaling in Greenland, see Whaling § Greenland.

"Greenland Whale Fisheries" is a traditional sea song. In most of the versions collected from oral sources, the song opens up giving a date for the events that it describes (usually between 1823 and 1853). However, the song is actually older than this and a form of it was published as a ballad before 1725.[1]

The song tells of a whaling expedition that leaves for Greenland. The lookout spots a "whalefish", and harpoon boats are launched. However, the whale strikes the boat with its tail, capsizing it, and several men are killed. The captain grieves over losing his prey, but especially for having lost his men. He then orders the ship to sail for home, calling Greenland a "dreadful place."

Like most traditional songs, "Greenland Whale Fisheries" exists in different versions.[2] Some change details (such as the date of the expedition), and others add or remove verses. Some modern versions, including the ones recorded by Theodore Bikel, The Chad Mitchell Trio, and later by The Pogues, flip the captain's expression of grief to make him regret losing his catch even more than losing his crew.

In the version popularized by The Weavers and Peter, Paul and Mary, a shanty recorded by Alan Lomax from a Barbadian fisherman is appended, which begins, "When the whale gets strike, and the line run down, and the whale makes a flounder with her tail..."[3]

Folk singer Paul Kaplan recorded a song with the same tune under the title "Call Me the Whale." Following a similar chronology, it tells the story from the whale's perspective.[4]

Covered by The Dubliners on their 1969 album At Home with The Dubliners.

Covered by Ryan's Fancy on their 1971 album Dark Island.

The Greenland Whalefishers, a Celtic punk band from Norway, is named after the song.


  1. ^ R. Vaughan Williams & A.L. Lloyd (editors): The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, Penguin Books, 1959. p.115
  2. ^ e.g. Vaughan Williams & Lloyd p.50. Version collected by Anne G. Gilchrist from the singing of W. Bolton, Southport, Lancashire, 1906
  3. ^ Check-list of Recorded Songs in the English Language in the Archive of Folk Song, United States Work Projects Administration. District of Columbia - 1942,Page 435
  4. ^ Call Me the Whale Lyrics