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The Sailor’s Alphabet

[ Roud 21100 ; Ballad Index RcTSAlp ; MusTrad MT230 ; DT SAILALPH ; Mudcat 57772 ; trad.]

Captain Manus J. Bonner of Charlevoix, Quebec, sang The Sailor’s Alphabet to Ivan H. Walton in 1932; he said that he learned it “when a hand before the mast in the 1870s”. This version was printed in Ivan H. Walton and Joe Grimm’s 2002 book Windjammers: Songs of the Great Lakes Sailors.

Clifford Jenkins from the Scilly Isles sang The Sailor’s Alphabet to Peter Kennedy in the 1950s. This recording was included in 1994 on the Saydisc anthology Sea Songs and Shanties.

Billy Barber sang The Sailor’s Alphabet to Peter Kennedy at Cadgwith in 1956 (BBC recording 23654). Inglis Gundry printed this version in his 1966 book of songs and dances from Cornwall, Canow Kernow.

Sam Larner sang The Sailor’s Alphabet in his home in Winterton, Norfolk in 1958/59 to Philip Donnellan. This BBC recording was released in 1974 on his Topic album A Garland for Sam. This track was also included in 1998 on the Topic anthology We’ve Received Orders to Sail (The Voice of the People Volume 12). Another recording made by Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker in 1958-60 was included in 2014 on his Musical Traditions anthology Cruising Round Yarmouth.

Bob Roberts sang The Bargeman’s Alphabet on his 1960 album of “sea shanties and saltwater ballads”, Windy Old Weather.

Ewan MacColl sang The Sailor’s Alphabet in 1962 on his and A.L. Lloyd’s Prestige album A Sailor’s Garland. A.L. Lloyd noted:

The naive device of alphabetical sequence seems to have special attraction for the makers of occupational songs. Australia has its Shearer’s Alphabet, the northeastern woods of the US have several versions of the Lumberman’s Alphabet, while the Fisherman’s Alphabet, Bosun’s Alphabet, and Sailor’s Alphabet are well-known to British seafarers. Most of the versions of the Sailor’s Alphabet seem to have originated in the Navy rather than in the merchant service. Stan Hugill reports that, in the old days, the song was sometimes used as a pumping shanty; hut more often, it was sung simply for fun. Our version is one that Sam Larner learnt while working in the Lowestoft drifter fleet.

Fairport Convention sang The Sailor’s Alphabet on their 1971 album Babbacombe Lee. They also sang it live at Cropredy on 13 August 1982, which was published in 1996 on their Musikfolk video Forever Young.

Johnny Doughty sang The Sailor’s Alphabet to Mike Yates at home in Brighton, Sussex, in Summer 1976. This recording was included in the following year on his Topic album Round Rye Bay for More and in 2001 on the Musical Traditions anthology of songs and music from the Mike Yates Collection, Up in the North and Down in the South. Yates noted:

Alphabet songs similar to this one exist among many communities. Soldiers, bargemen, lumberjacks, and sheepherders, among others, have their own versions of this mnemonic device which may originally have been influenced by such nursery rhymes as: A was an apple-pie / B bit it / C cut it / D dealt it / E eat it etc. which was well-known during the reign of Charles II (1660-1685). One interesting version, known as Tom Thumb’s Alphabet, dates from at least the beginning of the 18th century and could have well provided the basic idea behind Johnny’s song:

A was an archer, who shot at a frog,
B was a butcher, and had a great dog,
C was a captain, all covered with lace,
D was a drunkard, and had a red face, [etc.]

Bernie Klay sang The Sailor’s Alphabet at the Seattle Chantey Festival during the American Sail Training Association’s 1978 Tall Ships Pacific. This recording was release in the following year on the Folkways album Sea Songs Seattle.

Harold Smy sang The Bargeman’s Alphabet at Ipswich, Suffolk, to John Howson in 1985. This recording was released on the 1987-89 Veteran Tapes cassette of songs of bargemen, fishermen and sailors, Songs Sung in Suffolk 5, and was also included in 2001 on the Veteran anthology CD When the Wind Blows. John Howson commented:

The alphabet song is of considerable antiquity: one version beginning “A was for archer” dates back to the reign of Queen Anne. In the nineteenth century there was a comic Cockney alphabet “A for ’orses, B for mutton, T for two”. It seems many occupations have a similar song, but was particularly prevalent amongst seafarers; the letters of the alphabet explained the parts and working of the vessels. Harold’s version is difficult to follow at times, yet he certainly gets the spirit of the song. There are several other recorded nautical versions which have much clearer rhymes, particularly those of Sam Larner and Johnny Doughty. The final verse of Harold’s version, which concludes with the names on the stern fits well with his description of barge names: “Easter Monday, Easter Sunday, Christmas Day, Boxing Day, they were all barge names. There was Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, ’cause there’s seven names for a start. Then, Old Year, New Year, These Sisters, Three Sisters, Four Sisters. Well, when you’d got a fleet of barge names they had to think of hundreds of names!”

Cyril Tawney sang The Sailor’s Alphabet in 1992 on his Neptune Tapes cassette of sea songs for children, Little Boy Billee.

Stan Hugill sang The Bosun’s Alphabet during an informal session as part of a celebration of Stan’s 85th birthday. This was released in 1993 on his Veteran Tapes cassette Sailing Days.

Danny Spooner sang The Sailor’s Alphabet in 2009 on his album Bold Reilly Gone Away. He noted:

Until sailing time a crew would be fully occupied preparing the ship for sea. There were endless jobs to do and things to learn. All gear had to be checked and understood, a seaman had to know where to find a line, a tack, a sheet, a halyard or piece of equipment at any time, daylight or darkest night, on deck or aloft, in calm or in rolling seas. There are many versions of a sailor’s alphabet. Bob Roberts wrote one adaption called The Bargeman’s Alphabet. Such songs and shanties were a good way for a newcomer to learn their way around the gear on a ship or, as in the case of Bob and me, around his sailing barge. The Sailor’s Alphabet was usually sung as a forebitter, an off-duty song, though they were very handy at the old jiggy-gig pump.


Manus J. Bonner sings A Sailor’s Alphabet

A is the anchor of our gallant ship,
B is the bowsprit that in the seas dip,
C is the capstan so merrily goes ’round, and
D is the davits to which our boat’s bound.

Chorus (after each verse):
So merry, so merry, so merry are we,
No mortals on earth are as happy as we;
Hi derry, ho derry, hi derry down,
Give sailor boys rum and there’s nothing goes wrong!

E is the ensign at our masthead,
F is the fo’c’sle where is our bed,
G is the gun’l, against it seas splash,
H is the hawser that holds the ship fast.

I is the iron, without it we’re lost,
J is the jolly boat that rows us acrost
K is the keelson as I have been told, and
L is the lany’rd that keeps a good hold.

M is the mainmast so stout and so tall,
N is the nettings that hangs our hammocks all.
O is the oars we often do row, and
P is the pennant so lightly does flow.

Q is the quarterdeck on which our good captain stood,
R is the riggin’ so stout and so good.
S is the steward that weighs our beef, and
T is the tops’ls we oft have to reef.

U is the union to which our troubles pass,
V is the vang that holds steady the gaff.
W is the wheel by which we do steer, and
X, Y and Z are the rest of the gear.

Sam Larner sings A Sailor’s Alphabet

A stand for Anchor we carry on our bow
B stand for Bowsprit to bowl her along.
C for the Capstan which we heave around, and
D for our Duty, to which we are bound.

Chorus (after each verse):
Merry, cheerily, so merrily are we,
No mortal on earth like a sailor at sea.
Heave away haul away, hi-do-a-down,
Give a sailor his grog and there’s nothing go wrong.

E stand for Ensign, we fly at our Main,
F stand for Fo’castle, belong to the man.
G stand for Galley, that Cook, he belong, and
H for our Halliards, so long and so strong.

I stand for Iron to which we are bound,
J stand for Jolly-boat, so safe and so sound.
K stand for Keelson, the keel which is from, and
L are the Lanyards so long and so strong.

M stand for Mainmast so long and so strong,
N stand for Northpoint which never point wrong
O stand for Owners that boats they belong, and
P stand for Pumps—we all jog on.

Q stand for Quadrant which we take the sun,
R stand for Rudder the keel it ship on.
S stand for Standpost the rudder ship on, and
T for the Topsails, to pull her along.

U stand for Union, to which we do fly,
V stand for Venus, which we now pass by.
W for Wheel, in which we take time,
And the other three letters, they won’t come in rhyme.

Johnny Doughty sings The Sailor’s Alphabet

A’s for the anchor that swings at our bow,
B for the bowsprit through the wild seas do plough.
C for the capstan we merrily around,
D are the davits we lower our boats down.

Chorus (after each verse):
Sing high, sing low, wherever you go,
Give a sailor his tot and there’s nothing goes wrong.

Now E for the ensign that flies at our peak,
F is for the fo’c’sle where the good sailors sleep.
G for the galley where the cooks hop around,
H are the halyards we haul up and down.

Now I is the iron the ship is made of,
J for the jib which moves her along.
K is the keel at the boom of the ship,
L is the lanyards that never do slip.

Now M is the mainmast so neat and so strong,
N for the needles which never go wrong.
O for the oars we row our boats out,
P for the pumps that we keep her afloat.

Q for the quarterdeck Where officers do stand,
R is the rudder that steers us to land.
S for the sailors which move her along,
T for the topsails we pull up and down.

U for the union which flies from our peak,
V for the vitttles which the sailors do eat.
W for wheel where we all take our turn,
X, Y, Z is the name on our stern.

Harold Smy sings The Bargeman’s Alphabet

Now "A" is for the anchor that hangs on our bow
And "B" is for the bowsprit which we ships in our bow
"C" is for the galley where the cook runs around
And "D" are for the davits which we merrily run round.

Chorus (after each verse):
So merrily, so merrily so merrily are we
No mortal on earth like a bargemen at sea
Blow high or blow low as we’re sailing along
Give a bargemen his beer and there’s nothing goes wrong.

"E" is for the ensign that fly at our peak
And "F" is for the fo’c’sle where the sailors do sleep
"G" is for the galley where the cook runs around
And "H" are the halyards all numbered and told.

"I" is for the irons all numbered and told
And "J" is the for the jib that we often let rip
"K" is for the cask at the bottom of our hold
And "L" is for the lamps all numbered and told.

"M" is for the mast, so stout and so strong
"N" is for the needle that never point wrong.
"O" is for the oars we all pull in each boat
And "P" is for the pumps that keep us afloat.

"Q" is for the quarter-deck where the captain do stand
And "R" is for the rudder that steer us along
And "S" is for the sails that run at our fore
"T" is for the topsail that pull at our fore.

"U" is for the Union Jack that fly at our door
And "F" is the baying at our fore
And "W" is the wheel, we all take our turn
And "X","Y" and "Z" is the name on our stern.

Danny Spooner sings The Sailor’s Alphabet

A for the anchor we carry at our bow,
B for the bowsprit to bowl her along,
C for the capstan, the which we walk round,
D for the davits to lower our boats down.

Chorus (after each verse):
Merrily, cheerily, so merrily are we,
No mortal on earth like a sailor at sea.
Heave away, haul away, the ship rolls along,
Give a sailor his grog and there’s nothing goes wrong.

E’s for the ensign that flies at our peak,
F for the fo’c’sle belongs to the men,
G for the galley, the salt-horse smells strong,
H for the halyards that we hauls with a song.

I is for Imez to which we are bound,
J for the jolly-boat to run us around,
K for the keelson so stout and so strong,
And L is for lanyard that allus holds long.

M for the mainmast so stout and so strong,
N for the needle that never points wrong,
O for the oars in our jolly-boat,
P for the pinnace that always will float.

Q for the quarter, the capstan we box,
R for the rudder keeps us from the rocks,
S for the stuns’ls to make up some time,
T for the tops’l where the topmen they climb.

U is for uniform, only wore aft,
V for the vangs running from the main gaff,
W for the wheel at which we spend time,
The last three letters they won’t come in rhyme.