Origin of a Sea Shantie: “What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor?”

“What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor?” was a work song, mainly sung on ships with a large number of crewmen. According to Song Facts, it is one of the oldest Anglo-Saxon sea shanties, one sung by the Indiamen of the Honourable John Company. It the one of the few songs the British Royal Navy permitted its crew to sing aboard ship. Supposedly, all hands would sing the song in unison while raising the anchor or hoisting the sails. “Wey, hey up she rises.” Reportedly, the first published reference to the tune was in the books an American whaling ship sailing from New London, Connecticut, to the Pacific in 1839. John Masefield, Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, described the tune “as a ‘walk away’ shanty used for tacking, which would have been sung at a walking pace.” (Karen Dolby, Auld Lang Syne: Words to Songs You Used to Know, Michael O’Mara Books, ©2015)

220px-TenLittleInjuns1868.png The actual music was “a traditional Irish dance and march tune, ‘Oró Sé do Bheatha ‘Bhaile’ (Translated as ‘Óró, you are welcome home’).The same tune has also been used for other songs, possibly Ten Little Injuns.  (“Ten Little Injuns” is a popular song written by Septimus Winner in 1868 for the minstrel trade. It was based on an 1850s minstrel skit about one John Brown whose American Indian boy grows from “one little Injun” into “ten little Injuns,” and then back to one.) [You might know the “Ten Little Injuns” poem/song if you have ever read Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which was originally entitled Ten Little Indians.)

The music was first reproduced in printed form in 1824 in Cole’s Selection of Favourite Cotillions published in Baltimore. ClassicCat tells us, “However, the lyrics were first published in 1891 under the title “What to do with a Drunken Sailor?”. Another version appears in The Shanty Book, Part I, Sailor Shanties, by Richard Runciman Terry, categorised as a ‘Windlass and Capstan’ shanty. He says of it: ‘Although mostly used for windlass or capstan, Sir Walter Runciman tells me that he frequently sang to it for ‘hand-over-hand’ hauling. Whall gives it on page 107 under the title ‘Early in the morning.’ It is one of the few shanties that were sung in quick time.'” Its lyrics are much older, and comprise several verses full of various unpleasant things that could be done to sober up an inebriated sailor, including “stick him in the scrubber with a hosepipe on him” and “shave his belly with a rusty razor.

220px-Edison_51548_-_DrunkenSailorMedley

Melody and first verse of “Drunken Sailor”, culled from R. R. Terry’s The Shanty Book, Part One (1921). via Wikipedia

 ClassicCat also provides us this list of parodies and variations: 

The main theme from the first movement o Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major, Op. 102, mimics the song.

The Kingston Trio recorded “Early in the Morning” the chorus of which has the same tune but these lyrics: “When you lift your eyes and/see the sun a risin’/on the far horizon/early in the morning.”

American band Firewater recorded a song entitled “Snake-Eyes and Boxcars” that borrows the melody but changes the central lyric to “What shall we do with a drunken failure?”

Montreal band The Prowlers adapted the lyrics to suit the title “Drunken Skinhead” on their album “Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow”, released in 2001.

Folk singer Country Joe McDonald adapted the chorus for his song Save the Whales.

The melody is often used in Spongebob Square Pants.  

The song has also been used by Bleeding Hearts as the basis for ‘Siren Songs’ which was released in 2002 on their live acoustic album ‘Anarcoustica’.

Don Janse produced a particularly artistic arrangement in the early 1960s which has been included in several choral music anthologies. 

This song has been recorded by Sam Spence under the name “Up She Rises,” and is frequently used as background music for NFL Films.

In 2005, Toyota used the tune in a U. S. television commercial.

Drunken_sailor

Melody and first verse of “Drunken Sailor”, culled from R. R. Terry’s The Shanty Book, Part One (1921). Public Domain. via Wikipedia

Further reading:

Stan HugillShanties from the Seven Seas, Mystic Seaport Museum, 1994 ISBN 0-913372-70-6

 

If the song is now in your head, check out the Irish Rovers version HERE.

What will we do with a drunken sailor?
What will we do with a drunken sailor?
What will we do with a drunken sailor?
Early in the morning!

Way hay and up she rises,
Way hay and up she rises,
Way hay and up she rises,
Early in the morning!

Shave his belly with a rusty razor,
Shave his belly with a rusty razor,
Shave his belly with a rusty razor,
Early in the morning!

Way hay and up she rises,
Way hay and up she rises,
Way hay and up she rises,
Early in the morning!

Put him in a long boat till his sober,
Put him in a long boat till his sober,
Put him in a long boat till his sober,
Early in the morning!

Way hay and up she rises,
Way hay and up she rises,
Way hay and up she rises,
Early in the morning!

Stick him in a scupper with a hosepipe on him,
Stick him in a scupper with a hosepipe on him,
Stick him in a scupper with a hosepipe on him,
Early in the morning!
1

Way hay and up she rises,
Way hay and up she rises,
Way hay and up she rises,
Early in the morning!

Put him in the bed with the captains daughter,
Put him in the bed with the captains daughter,
Put him in the bed with the captains daughter,
Early in the morning!

Way hay and up she rises,
Way hay and up she rises,
Way hay and up she rises,
Early in the morning!

That’s what we do with a drunken sailor,
That’s what we do with a drunken sailor,
That’s what we do with a drunken sailor,
Early in the morning!

Way hay and up she rises,
Way hay and up she rises,
Way hay and up she rises,
Early in the morning!

Way hay and up she rises,
Way hay and up she rises,
Way hay and up she rises,
Early in the morning!

 

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
This entry was posted in American History, British history, British Navy, music, tradtions and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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