Although some folk songs and a few contemporary rock songs have unusual or even bizarre inspirations, there can't be many more offbeat than one that begins with being taken for a ride by a whale and then volunteering to be eaten by a boatload of hungry sailors.
Offshore whaling began in this area in 1673; by 1766 there were 118 whaling vessels sailing out of Nantucket Island, but in 1869 the last such ship left never to return; the death of the whaling industry was caused by a combination of the depletion of sperm whale stocks and the rise of the oil industry, petroleum replacing whale oil as an illuminant.
A Nantucket sleighride was a termed used by whalers to describe the result of harpooning a whale, usually a sperm whale. Obviously, a creature of that size can put up a considerable resistance, and it was not uncommon for a wounded whale to drag along a boat at speeds of over twenty miles per hour before it became exhausted and was ready to be slaughtered.
In August 1819, the Essex embarked from Nantucket on a lengthy whaling voyage to the South Pacific, where on November 20 the following year it encountered a whale that gave as good as it got. After the ship was rammed twice, it sank, and the twenty-one strong crew were forced to take to the lifeboats, such as they were.
They landed on Henderson Island, which along with its neighbors the Pitcairns is the most isolated island in the world. It was also uninhabited, and remains so to this day. Three of the survivors decided to remain on the island and fend for themselves as best they could, but the others decided the lesser of the evils lay in taking their chances on the open sea, so returned to the boats, and when the food ran out...
As their crewmates died, they were at first buried at sea, but then the dwindling band of doomed souls turned to cannibalism, and finally murder, if one may use that word to describe the actions they took in this impossible situation.
If it was murder, then it was carried out democratically, the men drew lots, and Owen Coffin, the cabin boy and nephew of the captain, drew the short straw, so to speak. Captain Pollard volunteered to take the youth's place, but Coffin insisted it was his "right" to die, thus adding heroism and self-sacrifice to this tale of unspeakable horrors.
Coffin was shot by Charles Ramsdell, the executioner like his victim being decided by drawing lots. Eventually, only eight of the crew survived and were rescued, including the three who had remained on Henderson Island.
Owen Chase, who had been the First Mate on the Essex published a book about their ordeal, and this in turn inspired the novel Moby Dick, which of course leant its name to an instrumental by Led Zeppelin.
"Nantucket Sleighride" was co-written by Mountain bass player/lead vocalist Felix Pappalardi and his wife Gail. Ironically, Felix was shot dead by Gail on April 17, 1983. She received a lenient sentence for criminally negligent homicide, and was a free woman two years later.
The album version of the song runs to 5 minutes 55 seconds, and is dedicated to Owen Coffin.
In Britain, "Nantucket Sleighride" was used as the theme music (instrumental only) for the political/current affairs TV program Weekend World.
Suggestion credit: Alexander Baron - London, England, for all above
Mountain is best known in the United States for their hit "Mississippi Queen," but thanks to its use on Weekend World, this is their most famous track in England. Mountain guitarist Leslie West told us that on his first trip to England, he was able to collect royalties from the song that helped finance his trip.
Leslie added that he used to hate playing the song because it was so complicated, but he has since learned to love it.
Ken from Philadelphia, PaLeslie West was (and is) one of the great guitarists of the rock era. A Rolling Stone magazine article from 2010 tells a story of Jimi Hendrix openly wondering if West (who was recording with Mountain in an adjacent studio) was a better guitarist than he was. Sure that might have been due in part to Hendrix's own insecurity but it was most definitely a commentary on the work West was doing.
Cliff from Oakdale, NySaw Leslie West 2 years ago at the Boltan YMCA Theater in Bayshore NY he was wonderful. Played this tune. Talked to him after the show and he could hardly walk. He lost his leg to diabetes recently. I wish him nothing but the best. He is a great performer.