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John Kanaka

[ Roud 8238 ; Ballad Index FaE050 ; DT JONKANAK ; Mudcat 21413 ; trad.]

John Roberts and a chorus of Louis Killen, Tony Barrand, Gordon Bok, Jon Eberhard, Andy Wallace and Jeff Warner sang John Kanaka on the 1977 album Clearwater II.

Stan Hugill sang John Kanaka on his 1980 Greenwich Village album of shanties and stories of life under sail, Stan Hugill Reminisces. He and Stormalong John sang it at “Fêtes du chant de marin”, Paimpol 1991. This was included in the following year on their Le Chasse-Marée CD Chants des Marins Anglais. And he sang it in 1998 on the live CD Stan Hugill in Concert at Mystic Seaport.

The Shanty Crew sang John Kanaka on the 2004 Lancaster Maritime Festival anthology, Beware of the Press-Gang!!.

Danny Spooner and chorus sang John Kanaka in 2009 on his album Bold Reilly Gone Away. He noted:

In [Richard Henry] Dana’s book Two Years Before the Mast, he makes mention of work-songs sung by kanakas loading cargoes along the Californian coast. Stan Hugill tells us he learned the song John Kanaka from a “wonderful West Indian shantyman, Harding of Barbados”. In Australia ‘kanaka’ was the term given to islanders who were stolen away into Australia to work like slaves in the cane fields.

This video shows Skinny Lister performing John Kanaka at Lincoln Hall Chicago in 3 November 2016:


Danny Spooner sings John Kanaka

“I hear,” I heard the Old Man say,
    John Kanaka naka too lai ay
“Tomorrow is our sailing day.”
    John Kanaka naka too lai ay

Chorus (after each verse):
Too lai ay, ooohh, too lai ay,
John Kanaka naka too lai ay.

I thought I heard the bosun say,
“Work tomorrow but not today.”

The blower says, “Before I’m done
You’ll wish to Christ you was no man’s son.”

And the striker says, “Before I’m through
You’ll curse your mother for having you.”

There’s rotten meat and there’s musty bread,
And “Pump or drown!” the Old Man said.

She wouldn’t wear and she wouldn’t stay,
She was taking water night and day.

When we arrive in the Mobile Bay
We’ll tear the sheets and spend our pay.

Just one suck-o and then belay,
Tomorrow, boys, is our payday.