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Fri December 30, 2011
Music Interviews

Winter Songs: The Frozen Tale Of 'Lord Franklin'

Originally published on Tue February 14, 2012 3:24 pm

We continue our Winter Song series with a lament for a 19th century British Arctic explorer. It's the choice of Andrew Revkin, who writes the Dot Earth blog for the New York Times.

"Lord Franklin" is a folk song about Sir John Franklin, who was many things, but not actually a lord. And he had one of the strangest sobriquets of anyone in history: "The Man Who Ate His Boots," gained after a terrible expedition in which he lost half of his party, most to starvation.

"He had already become a hero for going to the Arctic twice, mostly in northern Canada, mostly terrestrial," says Revkin in an interview with All Things Considered host Robert Siegel. "And he survived a horrible excursion that almost no one survived, and that's where that leathery name came from."

Franklin had a more successful third expedition, but the fourth one in 1845 was his last.

Franklin "left for this mission in the merry month of May, but he was heading toward Baffin Bay, which is always frozen," Revkin says. One climate scientist told him that Franklin "probably picked the worst year and the worst decade and the worst millennium in the last 10,000 years to go through the Northwest Passage."

Revkin has had his own brush with the Arctic. In 2003, he introduced "Lord Franklin" to several scientists and their crew while reporting on climate change.

"We were going to be camped for several days out on the sea ice that was only 4 feet thick and was moving 400 yards an hour, so it was a very weird place to be hanging out," Revkin says. "The Russians were going to take us in a helicopter from the spot where the plane we were on had landed on the ice. They got delayed quite a bit. It was supposed to be an hour, it became eight hours. We were sitting there. You can watch your breath; it's very cold. And to keep from getting stir crazy, I just figured I'd pull out that song, so I sang it there in the tent."

Revkin wasn't quite at the point of eating his boots, though.

"Jamie Morrison from the University of Massachusetts — he was wise enough to pack a sandwich that he had made. It was salmon salad," Revkin says. "And it was frozen by that time, but we all sort of nibbled at it. When you compare this to eating your boots or to the extreme experiences that people who went to the Arctic in the 19th century had, it's mild. But it was feeling kind of like, 'Where is that helicopter?' The feeling of urgency was starting to rise a little bit."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Time now for a winter song that's also a very chilly history lesson.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LORD FRANKLIN")

ANDREW REVKIN: (Singing) 'Twas homeward bound as we crossed the deep. Swinging in my hammock, I fell asleep. I dreamed a dream and I thought it true concerning Franklin and his gallant crew.

SIEGEL: The singer is Andrew Revkin, who writes the DotEarth blog for the New York Times. The song is "Lord Franklin." It is a lament for the 19th century British Arctic explorer, Sir John Franklin, who as I've learned only very recently, was many things, but not actually a lord. Andrew Revkin joins us now. Welcome to the program.

REVKIN: It's good to be with you.

SIEGEL: And explain to us first why there is a cold weather song about Franklin.

REVKIN: Well, he left on this mission in the merry month of May, but he was heading toward Baffin Bay, which is always frozen. And especially in the 19th century - that time in the 19th century, as one climate scientist told me, he probably picked the worst year in the worst decade in the worst millennium in the last 10,000 years to try to go through the northwest passage.

SIEGEL: And it didn't work out well?

REVKIN: It did not work out well. No. They all died.

SIEGEL: This earned Franklin one of the strangest sobriquets of anyone in history: The man who ate his boots.

REVKIN: He had already become kind of a hero for going to the Arctic twice, mostly in northern Canada, mostly terrestrial. And he survived a horrible excursion that almost no one survived. And that is where that leathery name came from.

SIEGEL: By having eaten his boots.

REVKIN: Yeah.

SIEGEL: It's a song you've known for a long time and you associate it with winter?

REVKIN: Yeah. I first learned it, I think, when I was first learning guitar in college. And I also was in love with folk music, generally, and I just was fascinated by the history of these kinds of tales.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LORD FRANKLIN")

REVKIN: (Singing) With 100 seamen, he sailed away, the frozen ocean in the month of May.

SIEGEL: Tell us about your experience in 2003 when you had occasion to introduce this great piece of music to several Russians.

REVKIN: Well, it was sort of a mixed band of - there were scientists and Russian crew. I was going along when I was a full-time reporter at the Times to the North Pole just to write more - as I had been writing a long time - about climate change. And we were going to be camped for several days out on the sea ice that was only eight feet thick and was moving 400 yards an hour. So it was a very sort of weird place to be hanging out.

And the Russians were going to take us in a helicopter from the spot where the plane that we were on had landed on the ice and they got delayed quite a bit. It was supposed to be like an hour, it became eight hours. So, we're sitting there. You can watch your breath. It's very cold. And to keep from getting stir crazy, I just figured I'd pull out that song, so I sang it there in the tent.

SIEGEL: You weren't yet - you and the climate scientists - you weren't yet reduced to eating your boots at that point?

REVKIN: No. But one of them, Jamie Morrison from the University of Massachusetts - he was wise enough to pack a sandwich that he'd made. It was salmon salad and it was frozen by that time, but we sort of all sort of nibbled at it. And, you know, when you compare this to eating your boots or to the extreme experiences that people who went to the Arctic in the 19th century had, it's mild. But it was feeling kind of like - where is that helicopter? The feeling of urgency was starting to rise a little bit.

SIEGEL: Yes. Well, Andrew Revkin, thank you very much for talking with us and for sending us your recording.

REVKIN: It's my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LORD FRANKLIN")

REVKIN: (Singing) Warming winds thaw frozen ground, so polar bears may go where Franklin's bound.

SIEGEL: That's a new verse Andrew Revkin and his musical partner, David Rothenberg, added to the traditional ballad, "Lord Franklin." And you can see a video of Revkin with the scientists stranded at the North Pole singing the song at NPR.org.

If there's a winter song that you'd like to share, one that evokes the sense of the season, visit NPR.org and click on Contact Us at the bottom of the page. Make sure Winter Song is in the subject line.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LORD FRANKLIN")

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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