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The Black Ball Line

[ Roud 2623 ; Ballad Index LxA489 ; trad.]

Ewan MacColl and chorus sang The Black Ball Line on his and A.L. Lloyd’s Topic albums The Black Ball Line (8" EP, 1957) and Blow the Man Down (7" EP, 1963). This track was also issued in 1957 on their French Le Chante du Monde album Chants de Marins Anglais No 2 and on their Australian Wattle album Singing Sailors, and in 1958 on their American Stinson album Haul on the Bowlin’. He recorded it again in 1962 on his and A.L. Lloyd’s American Prestige album A Sailor’s Garland. A.L. Lloyd noted on the first album:

The Blackball Line started in 1816. Its little 300-500 ton ships with their red swallowtail flag with its black ball in the middle, ran regularly twice a month from New York to Liverpool. They were heavily sparred and carried big crews, and because the working pressure was fierce, a great deal of hard singing went on. This song must be among the oldest of the better-known windlass shanties.

The Foc’sle Singers sang The Black Ball Line 1959 on their 1959 Folkways album Foc’sle Songs and Shanties. This track was included in 2004 on the Smithsonian Folkways anthology Classic Maritime Music.

Martyn Wyndham-Read sang Hoorah for the Black Ball Line in 1974 on the Topic theme album Sea Shanties. A.L. Lloyd noted:

This proud lively piece is by way of overture to the record. The little Black Ballers, originally running between New York and Liverpool, were the crack transatlantic vessels early in the nineteenth century, and they maintained their high reputation in the middle of the century when they were carrying the mails to Australia, on a contract that meant doing each trip within sixty five days or accepting a penalty. The men, like the ships, were driven by merciless officers spurred on by a hard company, but the Black Ball packet rats thought themselves the brightest of seamen.

American sailors wore redlined sea boots. If the tops were turned over, the red showed; hence, red-topped boots. The song was used indiscriminately for halyards, windlass or pumps.

Danny Spooner sang The Black Ball Line on his 1988 album We’ll Either Bend or Break ’Er.

Stan Hugill and Stormalong John sang The Black Ball Line at “Fêtes du chant de marin”, Paimpol, in 1991. This recording was included in the following year on his CD Chants des Marins Anglais. He also sang it on his 1998 CD Stan Hugill in Concert at Mystic Seaport.

Louis Killen sang The Black Ball Line on his 1997 CD A Seaman’s Garland.

Roger Wilson sang The Black Ball Line on the 2011 CD of songs from the repertoire of John Short a.k.a. Yankee Jack (1839-1933) of Watchet, Somerset, as collected by Cecil Sharp, Short Sharp Shanties Vol. 1. The album’s notes commented:

Tozer calls this shanty an anchor song, Whall gives it for windlass, Colcord for halyard. Hugill says that he disagrees with the collectors who attribute shanties to specific jobs. Short, who gave it to Sharp as a capstan shanty, gave only one verse (“In Tapscott’s Line…”) and the words Sharp published are, frankly, unbelievable (e.g. “It was there we discharged our cargo boys” and “The Skipper said, that will do, my boys”). Both Colcord and Hugill also comment on Sharp’s published words.

We have utilised fairly standard Blackball Line verses, slightly bent towards Short’s Tapscott Line theme. There is a degree of cynicism in this text—Tapscott was a con-man: he advertised his ships as being over 1000 tons when, in reality, they were 600 tons at the most!


Martyn Wyndham-Read sings Hoorah for the Black Ball Line

I served my time in the Black Ball Line,
    To me way hay ho row yah!
In the Black Ball Line I served my time,
    Hoorah for the Black Ball Line!

The Black Ball ships they make good time,
With long clean runs and entrance fine.

Oh, that’s the line where you can shine,
That’s the line where I spent my prime.

Just take the trip to Liverpool,
To Liverpool that packet school.

Them Yankee sailors you’ll see there,
With their red-top boots and short-cut hair.

Oh, around Cape Horn in the month of May,
Around Cape Horn is a bloody long way.

Around Cape Horn with the skys’ls set,
Around Cape Horn and we’re wringin’ wet.

Well, if we drown while we are young,
It’s better to be drowned than hung.

Danny Spooner sings The Black Ball Line

I served me time in the Black Ball Line,
    Timme, way, ay, ay hoorah oh,
In the Black Ball line I wasted me prime,
    Hoorah for the Black Ball Line.

Just take a trip to Liverpool,
To Liverpool that packet school.

The Yankee sailors ye’ll see there
Wiv red-topped boots and short cut hair.

There’s Liverpool Pat wiv his tarpaulin hat
And Paddy McGee that packet rat.

Oh once there was a Black Ball ship,
That fourteen knots along could clip.

Around Cape Stiff wiv the mains’ls set
Around Cape Stiff all wringing wet.

They’ll carry yer through the frost and snow,
They’ll take yer where the winds don’t blow.

When a Black Ball liner’s ready fer sea,
The sights on the fo’c’sls are funny to see.

There’s tinkers, fakirs, soljers all
On a Black Ball ship they’re sailors all.

So drink a health to the Black Ball Line,
Their ships are stout and their men are fine.

And when we git to New York Town,
We’ll meet old Pat and drink till we drown.