The Abandonment and Rescue of Alexander Selkirk

from by Jon S. Patton

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Alexander Selkirk is the near-certain inspiration for Robinson Crusoe. As a privateer sailing under the Captain Thomas Stradling, he had doubts about the seaworthiness of their vessel, the Cinque Ports, when they were anchored at Mas A Tierra (an island near Chile). He told Captain Stradling he would rather be left on the island than to sail on such a ship. Stradling called his bluff, and Selkirk spent the next four years and four months as the only living person on the island.

He stayed fed by hunting goats and eating turnips, stayed dry by building a couple of shacks out of pepperwood trees, and stayed sane by reading his bible.

He was rescued in February of 1709, and spent the rest of his life variously as a buccaneer, Royal Navy man, and pirate hunter. Poems and books have been written inspired by him, so I figured what about a song?

Selkirk is often used in literary references as a prime example of, well, a noble, primal man, but with a tinge of British Imperialism. Rarely are the very rough aspects of his life mentioned: repeated arrests for assault, including of his own brother, and he probably wasn't very welcome in his hometown of Lower Largo.

I spent a little longer than normal for a FAWM song on the lyrics. They were very challenging because I didn't want to be matter-of-fact about reciting the history, but it's very hard to tell a story about a person being alone. (Note that even Dafoe threw other people on the island for Crusoe to interact with!) And most of all, I really needed to find a good angle, a reason to tell a story about Selkirk beyond the simple amazing tale surviving alone on an island for four years. It turned out to be rooted in his death: He died of yellow fever on another voyage.

Selkirk led a very dangerous life, and yet he reported achieved some actual peace of mind while on the island. He had several near misses, none greater than the moment he was left on the island. So I focussed on telling a story about how someone becomes resigned to their fate. I stopped just short of telling how he died ... in my head, this song is him standing on the bow of the last ship he sails on, looking out at the ocean, and feeling a little ill, and realizing he has some of the same symptoms several others on the ship have died of.

lyrics

Bm
There's a man on the sand with a bag in his hand
A Bm
As the sails fill and leave him behind
A Dinv A Dinv
You will never know rashness, and never know fear,
A D Bm
regret, or remorse of this kind
The son of a tanner and an unruly man
Not the kind that you'd want to admire
Cursed his captain, his god, and his best-laid plans
But mostly his own sense of pride

Bm D
Enough gunpowder to last him a year
A Bm
The bible and a good pair of shoes
D A Bm
Many fools fear the grave that they'll lie in
A
Many more fear the blood that they'll lose
A Bm

A cold sun on the sea and an empty horizon
And the taste of goat's getting old
And he's gnawed on by rats like the worm-eaten vessel
Scuttled on Columbia's coast
There's a rusting old musket in a pepperwood shack
It's all wearing down over time
Sings a psalm and the songs that he sang as a child
Whatever will give peace of mind
Enough skill to keep one man alive
A knife made from the hoops of a tun
Many fools mourn the fate that they're given
What's it matter when all's said and done?

And on a late summer morning in 1709
When he barely remembers his name
After four lonely years and four lonely months
Comes a ship with a flag of his home
On a boat rowed from shore by the ship's good physician
He leaves Mas a Tierra behind
To be a captain, corsair or a king's privateer
As long as his fate is his own
Enough gold to last him for life
His own ship to plunder the world
There are two threads of fate in each moment
And we are balanced on the edge of a sword

credits

from The Howling Tongue of Each Other, released March 11, 2016

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baltimericana Baltimore, Maryland

Baltimericana is a place for me (Jon Patton) to stash my solo projects and collaborations with friends. I'm a writer, musician, and (unfortunately) day job schlub from Baltimore and the founder of Baltimore-based folk rock band Midway Fair (midwayfair.org). Be sure to also check out Joe Scala (joescala.wordpress.com), who produced the Baltimericana EP. ... more

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