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Fisherman’s Friends: A Paean for Workers?

Walter Moss: Regardless, however, of what we think of populism, we progressives should appreciate the positive virtues of hard-working, down-to-earth people.

Having recently watched Fisherman’s Friends (2019) on Netflix, my immediate thoughts were 1) how enjoyable it was; 2) how many worthwhile qualities abide in some hard-working, non-college-educated, people; and 3) what great pleasure comes from “folk” music. More about the film later on, but first a few related thoughts.

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Today’s liberals and progressives generally dislike the word “populist.” Mainly because it is often linked with “right-wing,” both in the USA (“Trumpian populism”) and abroad. U. S. historians, however, looking back over the last two centuries, see both populism’s positives and negatives.

Richard Hofstader, for example, in 1955, wrote, “There is indeed much that is good and usable in our Populist past.…Populism was the first modern political movement of practical importance in the United States to insist that the federal government has some responsibility for the commonweal [common good]; indeed, it was the first such movement to attack seriously the problems created by industrialism.”

More recently, historian Jill Lepore noted in her These Truths: A History of the United States (2018) that Andrew “Jackson’s rise to power marked the birth of American populism.” Later, after the Civil War, one of its founders, Mary Lease, argued that the “federal government had conspired with corporations and bankers to wrest political power from ordinary people, like farmers and factory workers.” She also “thought that financial capitalism was destroying democracy by making economic equality impossible.”

But Lepore also recognizes that “for all its passionate embrace of political equality and human rights and its energetic championing of suffrage, the [populist] People’s Party [founded in 1892] rested on a deep and abiding commitment to exclude from full citizenship anyone from or descended from anyone from Africa or Asia.… Populism’s racism and nativism rank among its longest-lasting legacies.”

Regardless, however, of what we think of populism, we progressives should appreciate the positive virtues of hard-working, down-to-earth people.

Regardless, however, of what we think of populism, we progressives should appreciate the positive virtues of hard-working, down-to-earth people. Almost a year ago, I referred to J.D. Vance’s best-selling Hillbilly Elegyand his beliefs that 1) anti-Trump individuals should avoid labeling many Trump supporters as rednecks, hillbillies, or white trash, and 2) that for an “elite white professional, working class whites are an easy target: you don’t have to feel guilty for being a racist or a xenophobe. By looking down on the hillbilly, you can get that high of self-righteousness and superiority without violating any of the moral norms of your own tribe. So your own prejudice is never revealed for what it is.”

In that same article, I pointed out what writers Carl Sandburg and Wendell Berry have to teach us about respect and appreciation for working-class people. Fisherman’s Friends reinforces these lessons taught by two of my favorite writers. But it is not a story set in the USA, but in the Cornish coastal village of Port Isaac, near the southwest tip of England—the same setting as the popular British TV series Doc Martin.

In real life and in the film, in this picturesque setting, a group of fishermen not only go out to fish, but also sing various sea shanties like “What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor." (See here for a 2018 real-life folk-festival performance by the Fisherman’s Friends.) The rest of the film can be summarized briefly.

Four London music businessmen arrive in Port Isaac and hear a group of fishermen singing sea shanties. But only one of the Londeners, Danny (actor Daniel Mays), finds them impressive and tries to sign them to a contract. Their spokesman Jim, however, replies (see filmscript here), “Thanks for the offer, son, but we're just fishermen, see. We have no need to sell our souls for 15 minutes of fame.” Especially to an outsider. Eventually, however, Danny wins them over—his motivation is enhanced by his being smitten by the spokesman’s daughter (and single mother) Alwyn.

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Before the film ends we hear Danny say to her, “I want you to know that I've done a lot of thinking over the last few months. Everything I thought I cared about…money, status, the flat, the cars, the toys…none of them have ever made me happy. But being down here with you and [your daughter] Tamsyn did.”

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Sound kind of trite and hokey? Yes, I guess it might. In fact, sophisticated viewers might find the whole film that way. But yet…I still liked it. Maybe, in many ways my working-class background, with its lack of sophistication, has never left me. Values are important to me. The fishermen live fundamental ones like friendship, loyalty, community, and hard work. They can also be humble enough to admit when they are wrong. In one pub scene fisherman Jim apologizes to a younger Rowan for ranting at him for selling the pub. “I-I've been a stubborn fool. You did what you did for the sake of your family, and I should never have let that come between us.”

The fishermen also love singing their shanties, which to my ears resemble the kind of folk songs collected and sometimes sung (accompanying himself on his guitar) by Carl Sandburg (see, e.g., here).

Perhaps its the historian in me, but I love to hear old folk music. In his American Songbag(1927) Sandburg gathered together such songs as “Blow the man down,” “The ship that never returned,” “Down in the valley,” “Hallelujah, I'm a bum!” and “As I walked out in the streets of Laredo.” I have liked to hear Sandburg or others sing such songs, as well as such old favorites like “Danny Boy” and “Amazing Grace,” or newer ballads like “The Fields of Athenry.” The music of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen also appeals to me, and I have written appreciatively about them as well as Sandburg (see, e.g., here and here). Although Springsteen is less in the folk tradition of Sandburg and Dylan, his sympathy for everyday people shines through his songs.

We all have different tastes in music, but the power and appeal of it is inarguable. The film Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory, for example, indicates its beneficial effects on Alzheimer’s suffers. And on singer Glen Campbell’s Farewell Tour, afflicted by the disease, he is still able to recall many lyrics.

As likeable as the fishermen and their families are does not mean that they are faultless or free of prejudice. The film conveys little of their politics, but the North Cornwall parliamentary district, which Port Isaac is part of, has a Conservative representative, and the district voted to leave the European Union. And like many voters, both in the UK and USA, many of the fishermen may have voted more because of their own private economic interests (in their case, the fishing trade) than because of larger considerations regarding the common good.

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In a 2017 LA Progressive article I indicated that although we should appreciate the positive values of non-college-educated working people, higher education should broaden our horizons and make us less narrow and provincial. This would be as true in Britain as in the USA. As true for Cornish fishermen, as for coal workers in West Virginia.

But even if people’s political views seem unenlightened to us progressives, we should still not ignore people’s good qualities. The radical pacifist and helper-of-the-poor Dorothy Day once wrote, “We must always be seeking concordances, rather than differences.” Today, after our Election Day once again signaled how divided we are, it’s more important than ever to seek some sort of tolerable concord.

As Joe Biden stated at Gettysburg, we need to “revive…a spirit of being able to work with one another.” In that spirit—and for a needed breather from election anxieties—all you Netflix subscribers do yourself a favor—watch Fisherman’s Friends.

walter moss

Walter G. Moss