“Sounding Calls”


This barely qualifies as a song, as there are only three notes, repeated in the same order with slight variation. There is no plot; the depth of the river is taken in order to avoid running aground. "Half twain, quarter twain, mark twain."


The terminology used in these song is explained in Botkin's notes, and more fully in sources such as Wheeler.

In simplest form, the measurements are in fathoms, and additive -- so, e.g. "half twain" is "half a fathom plus two fathoms," i.e. 15 feet; "quarter twain:" "quarter fathom plus two fathoms," i.e. 13.5 feet; "mark twain": two fathoms exactly, i.e. 12 feet.

Distances less than "quarter less twain" (10.5 feet) are given in feet, and distances over a certain limit (usually Mark Four, i.e. four fathoms=24 feet) are described as "no bottom."

The various "songs" combined under this heading are, of course, not ballads, and not even true folk tunes, nor do they constitute a single song. The tunes are simple, and almost all the words are simply the numbers for depths (though in fact the various singers had their own methods of calling the numbers -- a valuable skill if it helped keep the listeners alert). But collectively these chants represent a significant part of river culture, so I've included them. - RBW


  1. Botkin-MRFolklr, p. 572, "Mississippi Sounding Call" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. MWheeler, pp. 59-66, "Soundings at Memphis"; "Soundings from Uncle Mac"; Soundings from Tee Collins" (3 texts, 3 tunes)
  3. BI, BMRF572


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1939
Keywords: river nonballad
Found in: US(SE)