Frankie Gavin: a colossus of Irish music, in need of life-or-death help
Cover Story: (17) As Brexit again threatens Northern Ireland peace, another look at Reconciliation. Ron Kavana, Dick Gaughan, the Cottars or Voice Squad

Cover Story: (69) Bay of Fundy by the Unthanks, its composer Gordon Bok or Someone Else




Among the certainties of human existence, death and tax rank fairly high. So, a cynic might say, does Bill Taylor's disapproval.

In Salut! Live's corner of human existence, it is necessary only to express a liking for this or that piece of music for Bill to raise an objection.  Which brings us to a wonderful song, Bay of Fundy, its Nova Scotian geography very familiar to Toronto-based Bill. And to an immediate admission that if I were to say Bill disapproved of my absolute joy on hearing the Unthanks perform it, I would be exaggerating. He likes it, too, and also loves the Unthanks to bits; he just feels their version is the least convincing of those he has unearthed.

I was unaware of both song and composer, Gordon Bok, until Steve Peck drew it my attention at Salut! Live's Facebook group. I am indebted to him for alerting me to the Unthanks' new version and to my mate Tom Dooley (as he styles himself these days) for encouraging me to listen to Gordon Bok. The Unthanks are, as I would expect, irresistible. And the more I hear of Bok's work, and read about his life, the more I like him.

This is an edition of Cover Story - check out the series - but I shall add a bonus clip, Gordon's tremendous version of Three Score and Ten, as powerful a description of coastal and fishing tragedy as the songs telling of mining disasters at trimdon and Gresford.

Yes, I find Becky and Rachel's interpretation, and the dreamy arrangement, magical in every respect, including the reasons that impose misgivings on Bill. But then, I invited him to write about it. He does so with his usual eloquence, our differences here are minor and and I respect his view.



My thanks as usual to Roger Liptrot’s 




“Don't go down to Fundy Bay, she'll wear your time away…”

         Actually, going down to the Bay of Fundy is a very rewarding way to wear some time away. As Gordon Bok’s wonderful song of the same name points out:

         Fundy’s long and Fundy’s wide
         Fundy’s fog and rain and tide
         Never see the sun or sky
         Just the green wave going by


         That’s an overstatement, or at least poetic licence – the bay, which lies between the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and touches on the US state of Maine, does produce some extremes of weather but is a region of rugged and sometimes spectacular beauty. My wife Lesley and I drove around it in 1997 and would welcome the chance to go back.

         Among other things, it has the highest tides in the world. The average tidal range around the globe is one metre. The Bay of Fundy’s waters rise and fall more than 12 metres, about the height of a four-storey building.

         But back to the song, which Colin, the editor around here, asked me to write about after hearing what he called an “irresistible” new version by the Unthanks, from their latest album, Sorrows Away.

         Just as I know the actual bay a little bit, I knew the song a little bit, too. I always assumed it was a part of the Canadian traditional canon from the past couple of centuries.

         It was, in fact, written in 1975 by Bok, an American from Camden, Maine, not too far from the entrance to the Bay of Fundy. (The song turns out to be even older than Bill and I thought: written in 1967. Thanks to Randy Carman at the Unthanks’ Facebook group for pointing this out). 

         He is, I believe, still performing at the age of 82. (Cue the song: “I don’t mind the wet and cold, I just don’t like the growing old.” That resonates with me, too, though I don’t much like the wet and cold, either.)

         An interesting man, who got off to a flying start in 1965 when his first, self-titled, album was produced by Noel Paul Stookey, of Peter, Paul & Mary. Bok plays six- and 12-string guitar and a six-string fretted cello that he calls a “cellamba.” He’s also a folklorist, song-collector and woodcarver. Whether or not he actually speaks the languages, he can sing folk songs in their original Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Gaelic, Mongolian and Québécois (Quebec French is about as close to French French as modern English to Shakespearian).

         With minimal digging, I came up with five versions of Bay of Fundy, all distinctly different but immensely enjoyable.

         Bok sings in a gorgeous baritone, sometimes growly, sometimes mellowing out to the smoothness of molasses. It fits his own lyrics perfectly, a match made in Maritimes heaven.


         Has there a song been written that the Unthanks couldn’t sing and sing beautifully? There are any number of contemporary pieces that I’d love to turn them loose on, starting with Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road. Seriously. I think that would be epic.

         So… I never thought I’d find myself saying this but I like the Unthanks’ version of Bay of Fundy the least. Which is not to say I don’t like it – I do, very much. Their interpretation is pretty much flawless with their slightly flattened Geordie vowels underscoring the bleakness of some of the words.

         But for my money, it’s over-produced. The backing instruments are too lush. The Folk Radio website calls it “their most cinematic to date”. And therein lies the problem. With a simpler arrangement, I might find it as irresistible as Colin does. I’d love to hear Becky and Rachel Unthank perform it live with less going on behind them.


         Less is more for Folly Bridge, a British trio – Ian Giles, Graham Metcalfe and Claire Lloyd, who I believe is Ian’s sister. Sadly, they no longer perform together. Their rendition of Bay of Fundy is a cappella, with soaring, intertwining harmonies. It’s quite lovely.


         But now for something completely different – the Cache Valley Drifters, a California-based bluegrass band, formed in 1972 by Bill Griffin, Mike Mullins, Tom Lee and Wally Barnick.

         What’s an outfit like this doing with a song like that? Making it work, that’s what. Theirs is a more up-tempo version with an almost C&W swing to it, and a mandolin reminiscent of Dave Swarbrick’s. It might not quite fit the mood of the song but I lot.


         And finally to another interesting man – Bill Destler. Or, to be formal, Dr William Wallace Destler, former president of the Rochester Insitute of Technology in upstate New York, one-time provost and a senior vice president at the University of Maryland, dean of its college of engineering and a professor of electrical engineering. His PhD thesis  examined “high-power microwave sources and advanced accelerator technologies”.

         Destler collects hybrid and electric cars (he has three) and antique banjos (he has upwards of 160).  He’s also a founding member of the Baltimore Folk Music Society and describes himself as “an amateur folk musician”.

           An extremely good one. He’s put out a couple of albums and his repertoire includes Bay of Fundy. Destler has a light, pure voice – quite a contrast to Gordon Bok – and with his own guitar accompaniment his performance is simple, straightforward, enchanting.



** And now for the editor's bonus, Gordon Bok singing Three Score and Ten


Bill Taylor

Actually written by Gordon Bok, as has been pointed out, in 1967, not '75. I stand corrected.

Michael T Mace

Takes a big man to place the credit to its rightful owner...

Sharyn Dimmick

I read every word of this post in my email before clicking over to the site with the clips and my first thought and feeling was "uh-oh," the sinking in the pit of my stomach. Gordon Bok's "Bay of Fundy," the song and his performance of it, is a classic here in the States, such that it even spawned an affectionate parody: "All you players, proud and young/When you run your E-string down/Don't go down to funky D/It will throw you way off-key," which mocks forgetting to bring your guitar back to standard tuning after playing in dropped D (I heard this from Mark Cohen of Seattle, who may well have written it). Parody aside, many American folk musicians cannot hear the song title without hearing Bok's guitar and voice in our heads.

Just as I read every word of the post I listened to every note of the music presented here. As in previous recordings, The Unthanks have gotten it wrong again, cluttering up an elemental song about a man and nature with drums, strings and a video that looks like an audition to parlay their version into a film soundtrack. They have also introduced an egregious four-chord in place of the minor and gratuitous repeats of the lyrics. Feed Springsteen to these people if you must, but don't give them a simple song to sing.

I had hopes for the acapella performance by Folly Bridge because I could imagine a respectful, stark rendition of Bok's song. This, alas, is not it. The biggest sin here is the three note phrase on the word "long" in "all day long." Less is more: listen to the Bok recording again, please.

The bluegrass version is interesting. Before I heard it I wondered, "How are they going to do this?" What the Cache Valley Drifters get right are the chords, their nod to the descending runs in the original accompaniment and the American feel of the song.

The one who gets it right here, after Bok, is Bill Destler, because he understands the nature of the song, singing and playing it simply, letting the narrator's voice carry the day, giving us back the meditation of the sailor on the Bay of Fundy.

Colin Randall

Forcefully and eloquently put, Sharyn. I naturally challenge your condemnation of the Unthanks but tant pis. If you see no merit in their Here's The Tender Coming, King of Rome, Magpie, Shipbuilding, Fareweel Regality and, especially, Testimony of Patience Kershaw, we'll clearly never agree on them. As for Bay of Fundy, I'm delighted with my belated discovery of Gordon Bok and find it possible to treasure both his original and also the sisters' exquisite interpretation.,

Bill Taylor

I lack the musical and technical expertise of either of you but I agree and disagree with both of you up to a point (no surprise for Colin; he and I rarely see eye-to-eye altogether on music). I'm a huge fan of the Unthanks, especially when they keep it simple. I love their live recordings.
I take Sharyn's point about Folly Bridge but I still think their version is lovely. It may not be stark but I don't think it's disrespectful.
Like Sharyn, I didn't know what to expect from the Cache Valley Drifters. There again, when I first heard Alan Price's recording of "The Trimdon Grange Explosion" with full orchestral backing, I was totally taken aback. It shouldn't have worked. But it did. And I say that having also been blown away by seeing (as I've written previously on this site) Price do a glorious a cappella rendition of the song to close a concert in New York.
Yes, Gordon Bok and Bill Destler get the song exactly right. I think I marginally prefer Destler's version, actually. And I wonder if there's any way to get them together for a duet...

Bill Taylor

And then, of course, there are Bellowhead and The Mighty Doonans - joyously anarchic in their approach to just about everything. And second to none. There are, as always, more ways than one to skin a cat...

Colin Randall

"You can do anything you want with music. It won't mind." Dave Swarbrick to Martin Carthy, as recounted by one of them to me.

Bill Taylor

It doesn't always work, of course, but I'm all for musical cross-pollination. One of the best tracks on my Spotify lineup is an operatic tenor belting out "Dr. Jimmy and Mr. Jim" from The Who's "Quadrophenia," including the wonderfully defiant (and perfectly enunciated) line, "Her fellow's going to kill me? Oh, f***ing will he?!" Roll over, Beethoven...

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