Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys - comments

Anthology of rock, pop and folk artists singing mainly traditional shanties.

Essay and notes by Hall Willner.

So first of all a sea chantey (often spelled shanty) is a work song that was sung the ol' ships in the day. Rhythmically they matched the activity speed of these men hauling on lines. Many of them are really filthy. Many are very beautiful. They aren't really sung these days because modern day rigging doesn't really need a lot of people working in the same rhythm for long periods of time. A sea song is a song about a life at sea from a narrative or personal point of view. A pirate ballad is a song telling a tale of pirates. I knew none of this when Brett Gurewitz and Andy Kaulkin asked me if I wanted to produce an album of sea chanteys for Anti/Epitaph. Without thinking, I immediately said yes - it had instant appeal for me as I knew absolutely nothing about the subject and the potential for failure was huge. Actually, I did have a starting point. And it was "Blood Red Roses".


track 1
Cape Cod Girls
Baby Gramps, guitar, vocal; Philip Morgan, banjo; Eyvind Kang, flute, violin; Akron/ Family: Seth Olinsky, Ryan Vanderhoof, Dana Janssen, Miles Seaton - backing vocals

A very popular New England chantey, probably originating with Cape Cod whalers bound for the Great Southern Ocean. At one time there were undoubtedly obscene verses, but many such chantey verses were lost to Victorian sensibilities, and never written down.

track 2
Mingulay Boat Song
Richard Thompson, vocals, guitar; Jack Shit: Val McCallum, guitar; Pete Thomas, drums; Davey Fallagher, bass; also - Richard Greene, violin; Michael Thompson, accordion; Debra Dobkin, percussion; Doug Pettibone, guitar

This haunting song was composed by Hugh Richardson (1874 - 1952) of Glasgow in 1938 as a choral work. It commemorates the people and lost culture of the island of Mingulay in the Outer Hebrides off northwest Scotland. Mingulay has been uninhabited since 1912. 

track 3
My Son John
John C Reilly, vocals; Jack Shit: Val McCallum, guitar, backing vocals; Pete Thomas, drums, backing vocals; Davey Fallagher, bass, backing vocals; also Loudon Wainwright III, harmony vocals; Richard Greene, violin; Neil Larsen, accordion.

This song is closely related to another famous ballad from the Napoleonic wars, Mrs Magrath. Other verses tell how the young woman is lured to sea by Marine recruiters, hoping to find glory and his fortune, only to lose his legs. The theme is no less current today.

track 4
Fire Down Below
Nick Cave, vocals; Kate St. John, accordion; Rory McFarlane, bass, backing vocals; Warren Ellis, strings; Leo Abrahams, guitar, backing vocals; Andy Newmark, drums, backing vocals; Martyn Barker, percussion, backing vocals; Hal Willner, Martin Brumback, Mocean Worker (Adam Dorn), Vera Beren, Lee Ann Brown, Tony Torn, backing vocals

A popular pumping chantey, this was actually the last chantey sung aboard a commercial British square-rigger, by Stan Hugill in 1929, as the barque was pumped out for the last time. There are a number of versions, and in some the "fire down below" is more explicitly a reference to venereal disease.

track 5
Turkish Revelry
Loudon Wainwright III, guitar, vocals; Richard Greene, violin

The song appears to date back a seventeenth century ballad concerning Sir Walter Raleigh, a noted early sea dog, and by many accounts, a real bastard. Many versions exist under various titles, including a capstan chantey. The moral character of the story is clear as the poor cabin boy fulfills his part in good faith, but cannot enforce the bargain.

track 6
Bully in the Alley
Three Pruned Men: Dave-Id Basarus, lead vocals; Guggi, backing vocals; Gavin Friday, backing vocals also ... Maurice Seezer, accordion; Robbie Cesserly, drums and percussion; Anto Drennan, guitar; Tony Molloy, bass; Zoe Conway, strings.

A venerable halyard chantey, probably of West Indies origin. "Bully" in this context means extremely drunk. Hence, the usual chorus "Help me, Bob, I'm bully in the alley," means essentially "I'm too drunk to get back to the ship under my own power."

track 7
The Cruel Ship's Captain
Bryan Ferry, vocals, piano; Warren Ellis, violin; Kate St John, oboe; Rory McFarlane, bass; Peter Stanley, banjo; Martyn Barker, percussion; Andy Newmark, drums.

This song was probably first published as a broadside in the mid 19th century. Many such songs were a form of popular protest against the cruelty and injustice of the times. Copies of the song, in sheet music, were sold in the street. They were often written anonymously. At sea, the captain was the absolute authority, with little or no restraints. A cruel captain could subject his crew to torments we can hardly imagine today.

track 8
Dead Horse
Robin Holcomb, vocals, piano; Bill Frisell, guitar; Wayne Horvitz, keyboards; Eyvind Kang, violin; Akron/Family: Seth Olinsky, guitar; Miles Seaton, guitar; Dana Jansson, bass; Ryan Vanderhoof, drums.

A highly revered tradition on early sailing ships was the ceremony of "paying off the dead horse." Merchant sailors typically received their first month's pay in advance. Thus, it was not until after the first 30 days of a voyage that new wages were being earned. A canvas horse effigy was dragged across the deck, hoisted to the main yardarm to this chantey, and dropped into the sea.

track 9
Spanish Ladies
Bill Frisell, guitar; Hal Willner, 3 Buddha machines (ambient loops)

Music has always been a traditional diversion on ship. In the early evening dog watch sailors might gather on the fo'c'sle to sing, dance and share tunes such as this.

track 10
Coast of High Barbary
Joseph Arthur, vocals; Joan as Policewoman, violin; Jim White, drums; backing vocals; Arthur Baron, trombone, backing vocals; Rainy Orteca, guitar, backing vocals; Dom Richards, bass, backing vocals; Ed Pastorini, keyboards, backing vocals.

High Barbary was the romantic name of the once highly dangerous Riff Coast of North Africa, home of the dreaded Barbary Pirates. Also known as Corsairs , these often state-sponsored pirates preyed on European shipping for over 300 years. This song, sometimes used as a chantey, has many variations. All of them end with the pirates' demise.

track 11
Haul Away Joe
Mark Anthony Thompson, vocal; Joan as Policewoman, strings; Jim White, drums; Arthur Baron, tin whistle, didgeridoo; Rainy Orteca, guitar; Dom Richards, bass; Ed Pastorini, harmonium

This famous tack and sheet chantey have several tunes but today the minor version is the most often sung. the vigorous unison hauling involved comes on the word "Joe!".

track 12
Dan Dan
David Thomas, vocals; Keith Moliné, guitar; Kate St. John, oboe, accordion; Rory McFarlane, bass; Warren Ellis, strings; Leo Abrahams, guitar; Andy Newmark, drums

A West Indian work chant which was first used ashore and later taken to sea as a simple halyard chantey.

track 13
Blood Red Roses
Sting, vocals; Richard Greene, violin; Michael Thompson, accordion; Pete Thomas, drums, backing vocals; Val McCallum, Doug Pettibone, Davey Fallagher, Debra Dobkin, Greg Prestopino, backing vocals

The halyard chantey was popular in Cape Horn ships out of Liverpool. It is most probably based on a family of Irish and English folk songs concerning the Napoleonic Wars. The 'blood red roses' may be a reference to British Redcoat soldiers , or it may be the capital cities of Europe, referred to as the "bonnie bunch of roses" that Napoleon tried to gather and lost, in an Irish song of that name.

track 14
Sally Brown
Teddy Thompson, vocals and guitar.

Sally Brown, along with Ranzo Ray and Old Stormalong, is one of the mysterious people that are featured in numerous chanteys. Chanteys involving Sally Brown always have versions with obscene lyrics. Was she a real person? We'll never know. This west Indian capstan chantey probably dates from the 1830's and never lost its popularity.

track 15
Lowlands Away
Rufus Wainwright, vocals; Kate McGarrigle, vocals, guitar; Joan as Policewoman, violin; Ed Pastorini, harmonium.

Originally a pumping chantey, later used for capstan and windlass, this ghost story is based on a Scottish theme The dead lover, lost at sea appears to meet for one last time with his true love, and tell her of his fate.

track 16
Baltimore Whores
Gavin Friday, vocals; Maurice Seezer, accordion; Robbie Cesserly, drums, percussion; Anto Drennan, guitar;  Tony Molloy, bass; Zoe Conway, strings.

Here is an example of the kind of lyrics used in some sea chanteys in their original context. Most of the versions of this sort were edited out of printed collections. The origin of this song is unclear, but I doubt that the author will come forward.

track 17
Rolling Sea
Eliza Carthy, violin, vocals; Tim van Eyken, accordion, backing vocals; Kate St. John, oboe, accordion; Rory McFarlane, bass, backing vocals; Warren Ellis, strings, backing vocals; Leo Abrahams, guitar, backing vocals; Andy Newmark, drums, backing vocals; Martyn Barker, percussion, backing vocals; Ralph Steadman, Robyn Hitchcock, Ed Harcourt, backing vocals.

This song is from the perspective of a woman ashore, waiting for her sailor (or any sailor) to return home (with prize money). The lyrics are from the Napoleonic period. Some verses are the voice of a wife or sweetheart. The verse that compares sailors and soldiers is a well known whore's ditty of the time.

track 18
The Mermaid
Martin Carthy, Norma Waterson, Eliza Carthy also Tim van Eyken, Jenni Muldaur, Kate St John, Rory McFarlane, Warren Ellis, Leo Abrahams, Andy Newmark, Martin Barker - vocals.

A traditional ballad that illustrates the deeply superstitious nature of sailors. In the old days, the sighting of a mermaid could foretell certain doom for the ship.

track 19
Haul on the Bowline
Bob Neuwirth, vocals; Pete Thomas, drums; Richard Greene, violin; Michael Thompson, accordion.

This may be one of the oldest chanteys known. The bowline was an important rape in sailing vessels dating back to the middle ages. After the 1550's with the advent of stays'ls, the bowline diminished in importance and this chantey was used at tacks and sheets.

track 20
A Dying Sailor to His Shipmates
Bono, vocals; Maurice Seezer, accordion [both recorded in Dublin]. Also, recorded in New York: Jenny Scheinman, violin, string arrangement; Johnny Gandelsman, violin; Nicholas Cords, viola; Eric Jacobsen, cello.

A haunting ballad of the 19th century whaling ships. As well as being musical, sailors often displayed great poetic ability as in the lyrics of this powerful song.

track 21
Bonnie Portmore
Lucinda Williams, vocals, guitar

This Celtic song mourns the destruction of the hardwood forests of Ireland, primarily for English military and shipbuilding purposes. The Great Oak of Portmore stood near Portmore castle on the shores of Lough Beg.

track 22
Richard Greene, violin; Jack Shit: [Val McCallum, guitar; Pete Thomas, drums; Davey Fallagher, bass, Neil Larsen, accordion]

The beautiful American song was originally used by river boatmen and voyagers on the Ohio an Missouri rivers. It became a popular capstan chantey among deep water sailors. Shenandoah is said to have been a chief of the Oneida tribe.

track 23
The Cry of Man
Mary Margaret O'Hara, vocals; Kate St John. oboe, accordion, English horn; Rory McFarlane, bass; David Coulter, saw; Terry Edwards, flugelhorn; Joe Berardi, percussion; Pietra Wextun, piano; Stan Ridgway, harmonica

Here is a musical setting of a poem by Harry Kemp (1883 - 1960). Kemp was famous (or infamous) as a bohemian and boxcar poet. He lived much of his life in Greenwich Village. He also lived in shacks, rode freight cars, and as a young man, ran away to sea.


track 1
Boney Was a Warrior
Jack Shit: Val McCallum, guitar, vocals; Pete Thomas, drums, Davey Fallagher, bass, vocals; also ... Neil Larson, accordion.

Boney is, of course, Napoleon Bonaparte, whose exploits are recorded in much abbreviated, but fairly accurate fashion in this halyard or fore-chantey chantey. The chantey probably originated from a street ballad of the times.

track 2
Good Ship Venus
Loudon Wainwright III, guitar, vocals; Jack Shit: Val McCallum, guitar; Pete Thomas, drums; Davey Fallagher, bass ... also Neil Larson, accordion; Richard Greene, violin

Among the filthiest series of lyrics ever collected and written down, this gem was first put to paper by Christopher Logue in Count Palmiro Vicarion's Book of Bawdy Ballads, courageously published by the notorious Olympia Press (Maurice Girodias) in 1956. Maurice was a much persecuted man. He also published Lolita and Lady Chatterley's Lover. Old time sailors would surely have been proud. 

track 3
Long Time Ago
White Magic:Mira Billotte, vocals; Douglas Shaw, vocals ... also Joan as Policewoman, violin; Ed Pastorini, harmonium; Art Baron, trombone.

By the 1890's this is said to have been the most popular chantey of all . Probably African American in origin, there are versions in German and Norwegian.

track 4
Pinery Boy
Nick Cave, vocals, piano; Kate St. John, oboe, accordion; Rory McFarlane, bass; Warren Ellis, strings; Leo Abrahams, guitar; Andy Newmark, drums; Martyn Barker, percussion.

An early American folk ballad which tells of a young woman's desperate search for her timber raftsman lover on the Wisconsin river. She takes to a raft herself to find him, but alas, he has drowned. This is the American version of an older British song, A Sailor's Life.

track 5
Lowlands Low
Bryan Ferry, vocals; Antony, vocals; Kate St John, oboe; Warren Ellis, violin; Peter Stanley, banjo; Rory McFarlane, bass; Andy Newmark, drums; Martyn Barker, percussion.

This is a classic halyard chantey once popular in the West Indies. Many of the verses are direct references to getting the sails aloft. The "lowlands" was originally a reference to the Netherlands.

track 6
One Spring Morning
Akron/ Family: Seth Olinsky - guitar, vocals; Miles Seaton, bass, vocals; Dana Janssen, drums, percussion, banjo, vocals; Ryan Vanderhoof, guitar, vocals, also ... Eyvind Kang, violin; Bill Frisell, guitar.

Whenever sailors go to sea, they risk the loss of everything left behind. Those left onshore wait with the uncertainty of when or whether the sailor will return. Sometimes, as in the British Isles ballad, they don't wait.

track 7
Hog-Eye Man
Martin Carthy, vocals; Norma Waterson, vocals; Eliza Carthy, violin, vocals; Tim van Eyken, accordion; Martyn Baker, percussion; Andy Newmark, drums.

A hog-eye was apparently a type of barge used in the canals and rivers of America from the 1850's onward. Thus, "hog-eye man" was used in derogation by the deep-water sailors who used this chantey at the capstan. Many of the original verses of this chantey were far too obscene to have ever found their way into print.

track 8
The Fiddler
Ricky Jay, voice, story of the fiddler; Richard Greene, violin, melody of "A Drop of Nelson's Blood".

One of the realities of shipboard life is being cooped up in a small place with the same people day after day. This fiddler is playing "Roll the Old Chariot". Perhaps he's playing it over and over and over. Murders have been committed for less.

track 9
Caroline and Her Young Sailor Bold
Andrea Corr, vocals; Zoe Conway, backing vocals

A 19th century Irish folk ballad, probably first recorded by Joe Heaney in the early 1960's. This is the classic story of a young woman in love with a sailor who follows him to sea, dressed as a man. The unusual twist is that all ends so happily.

track 10
Fathom the Bowl
John C. Reilly, vocals; Jack Shit,: Pete Thomas, drums, backing vocals; Davey Fallagher bass, backing vocals; Val McCallum, guitar; backing vocals; also Neil Larsen, accordion; Richard Greene, violin; Loudon Wainwright, III, backing vocals.

A classic drinking song from Colonial times. To "fathom" here means to test the depth. "Punch" was once synonymous with the modern "mixed drink". Sailors used to view it as an absolute daily entitlement. The grog ration in Nelson's time contained nearly 12 ounces of rum by modern measure, daily.

track 11
What do we do with a drunken sailor
David Thomas, vocals, melodeon; Kate St. John sax; Rory McFarlane, bass; Warren Ellis, strings; Leo Abrahams, guitar; Andy Newmark, drums; Martyn Barker, percussion

This stamp-and-go chantey is one of the best known and also quite old. A printer version from the 1830's differs little from the modern one.

track 12
Farewell Nancy
Ed Harcourt, vocals, piano; Kate St. John, oboe, accordion; Rory McFarlane, bass; Warren Ellis, strings; Leo Abraham, guitar; Andy Newmark, drums; Martyn Barker, percussion

This ballad was published in Joyce's Ancient Irish Music (1873). there are published versions of closely related songs going back to at least 1810. In some versions of the story Nancy does indeed dress in men's clothing and follow William to sea. In a related song, Jack Monroe, Nancy's sailor is wounded and she saves him.

track 13
Hanging Johnny
Stan Ridgway, vocals, guitar; Kate St. John, English horn; Rory McFarlane, bass; David Coulter, violin; Terry Edwards, flugelhorn; Joe Berardi, drums; Pietra Wextun, piano; Mary Margaret O'Hara, backing vocals; Moceon Worker, percussion.

A maneuver called "swigging" was sometimes used to give a last strong tightening pull on the halyard. This essentially involved one or more sailors reaching high and "hanging" on the line with their full weight. Hence the association with hanging at the halyards where this chantey was used.

track 14
Old Man of the Sea
Baby Gramps, vocals, guitar; Philip Morgan, Irish whistle; Bill Frisell, guitar; Eyvind Kang, flute, violin.

Sailors often attributed human qualities and consciousness to many aspects of their waters environs. Belief in mermaids, the Old Man of the Sea, malicious winds, and the like persists to this day.

track 15
Greenland Whale Fisheries
Van Dyke Parks, piano, vocals, arrangement; Jack Shit,: Val McCallum, guitar; Pete Thomas, drums, backing vocals; Davey Fallagher, bass, backing vocals;  also Doug Pettibone, guitar, backing vocals; Michael Thompson, accordion, backing vocals; Neil Larson, accordion, backing vocals; Richard Greene, fiddle, backing vocals; Matt Cartsonis, vocals, mandolin, mandolin; Steve Berlin, baritone sax, backing vocals; Greg Prestopino, backing vocals   

An American whaling song sometimes used as a capstan chantey. This song vividly captures both the thrill and danger of whaling in the 19th century. In some versions the captain is more grieved at the loss of his men, but this version, where he's more grieved by the loss of the whale, was perhaps more likely.

track 16
Shallow Brown
Sting, vocals; Mocean Worker, keyboards, electronics; Debra Dobkin, Val McCallum, Davey Fallagher, Greg Prestopino, backing vocals.

The word "Shallow" here is probably derived from "challo", a West Indian word meaning "half-caste." This beautiful sentimental song was first used for the pumps and later as a halyard chantey.

track 17
The Grey Funnel Line
Jolie Holland, vocals; Kate St. John, oboe, accordion, English horn; Rory McFarlane, bass; David Coulter, fiddle, banjo, mandolin, ukulele; Terry Edwards, flugelhorn; Joe Berardi, druns; Richard Strange, Mary Margaret O'Hara, backing vocals.

This song was written by Cyril Tawney (1930 - 2005), one of Britain's greatest songwriters and traditional folk singers. Cyril also served for over 12 years in the Royal Navy, and this song is based on those experiences. The Grey Funnel Line is a nickname for the modern Royal Navy.

track 18
A Drop of Nelson's Blood
Jarvis Cocker, vocals, vocoder; Richard Hawley, guitar; Steve Mackey, bass; Ross Orton, drums.

Sometimes called "Roll the Old Chariot" this chantey was originally based on a Salvation Army revival song. "Nelson's Blood" is British sailor's slang for rum (or brandy by some accounts) to preserve it for burial after he was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar. According to tradition, when the cask was opened, Nelson was there but the alcohol was gone.

track 19
Leave Her Johnny
Lou Reed, guitar, vocals; Anthony, backing vocals; Jane Scarpantoni, cello.

This chantey traditionally allowed for the airing of grievances at the end of a voyage and was used at the capstan  while warping her in, or in the final session at the pumps. Very obscene verses were sometimes sung.

track 20
Little Boy Billee
Ralph Steadman, vocals; Robyn Hitchcock, vocals, guitar; Jenni Muldaur, backing vocals; Ed Harcourt, vocals, piano; Kate St. John, oboe accordion; Rory McFarlane, bass, backing vocals; Warren Ellis, strings, backing vocals; Leo Abrahams, guitar, backing vocals; Andy Newmark, drums, backing vocals; Martyn Barker, percussion, backing vocals.

A humorous fo'c'sle song of obscure origin. There was actually a time, before 1885, when eating the cabin boy in an emergency was an accepted part of the "custom of the sea". In 1885 legal precedent was set when three shipwrecked British sailors were convicted of murder for eating their 17 year old cabin boy, Richard Parker, before their rescue. Life was imitating art in the spookiest of ways. In 1837, Edgar Alan Poe published a story in which three shipwrecked sailors ate their cabin boy. His name in Poe's story: Richard Parker.

Last updated on 11/01/2007