Sally Brown, and the shanty that isn’t a shanty

Originally posted 03 May 2012

In the book I mentioned a sea shanty called “Sally Brown” that reveals a lot about a sailor’s vision of the good life. You can hear it at this link – the file will open in a new window.

There is a clear West Indian beat in Simon Spalding’s rendition of this song about a mixed-race woman who “drinks rum and chews tobacco”, an ideal of womanhood far from the more genteel ladies back at home. Another vision of the good life that awaited ashore is in the song “Rolling Down to Old Maui,” in which a sailor sings

We’re homeward bound from the Arctic Sound
With a good ship taut and free
And we don’t give a damn when we drink our rum
With the girls of Old Maui

This is an old song, the earliest version of which was first recorded in 1858, but it is not a sea shanty – it was not designed as a work song to be sung in unison while accomplishing a task aboard ship. It is technically a forebitter – a ballad to be sung after the work is done. And if it’s a happy song, why does it have that name, with the word bitter right there to be seen? It actually comes from the forebitts, a place by the bow of the ship that is convenient to sing and play music. If you are interested in nautical lore and sailor songs, I recommend that you investigate, the webpage for shantyman and historian Simon Spalding. He learned from Stan Hugill, the last man alive to sing those songs aboard a British Merchant Navy sailing ship, so there is a chain of tradition here.