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Blow Boys Blow

[ Roud 703 ; G/D 1:2 ; Ballad Index Doe025 ; trad.]

Ewan MacColl sang this topsail halyard shanty as title track of his and A.L. Lloyd’s 1957 album, Blow Boys Blow. A.L. Lloyd commented in the album’s sleeve notes:

This topsail halyard shanty, Blow Boye Blow, originated on the West African run, during the days of the slave trade. Later, with the Congo River stanzas dropped, it passed into use aboard Atlantic packets. The skipper’s name is given variously as Bully Hayes, Bully Sims, and One-Eyed Kelly. The stanza about the packet-ship firing its gun may date from the Civil War, or may refer to an anti-slavery patrol.

A.L. Lloyd sang Blow Boys Blow in the score of the 1962 film Whaler Out of New Bedford.

Danny Spooner sang Blow Boys Blow on his 1988 album We’ll Either Bend or Break ’Er.

Blow Boys Blow was also sung by Maddy Prior & the Girls (Rose Kemp and Abbie Lathe) on their album of 2002, Bib & Tuck.

The New Scorpion Band sang Blow Boys Blow in 2004 on their CD Out on the Ocean. Tim Laycock noted:

A tops’l halyard shanty from the days of the China Clippers.

“Spotless decks and ‘masts and spars that shone like silver’ were the distinguishing marks of a Yankee Packet, and this immaculate condition was the result of a terrible discipline, in which the belaying pin was a gruesome factor” – R.R. Terry.

Keith Kendrick sang Blow Boys, Come Blow Together in 2011 on the anthology of songs collected from John Short by Cecil Sharp, Short Sharp Shanties Vol. 1. The album notes commented:

Among the collectors, and all of them give versions of this shanty, there seems to be a consensus that this shanty started life somewhere in the slave trade and the Congo River—which appears in many versions—and only subsequently became used with the general theme of the Yankee packet ships and their harsh discipline. Hugill, however, thinks that “although some authorities seem to think it started its career in the Guinea slaving trade, the possibility that it started in the Packet trade (about 1813) is stronger.” If that is the case, then ‘the embargo’ would be the 1812 military embargo and not the slave-trade embargo of 1800.

In terms of text, Hugill gives “three patterns: 1) The Guinea Slaver; 2) The Bucko Ship (Yankee China Clipper); 3) Harry Tate Ship (English skit on Yankee packet).” Short’s verses are effectively for the second pattern and we have taken lines to complete Short’s couplets from other versions of that set. Short used several of the stanzas usually associated with Hugill’s ‘Guinea Slaver’ pattern for his version of Shallow Brown.

Sharp’s note, from Short, gives: “Yankee ships never carried limejuice like English ships. Hence an Englishman was called a ‘limejuicer’.” It was the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 that detailed limejuice provision as a protection against. and remedy for, scurvy, along with much other regulation, to the British merchant fleet.


Ewan MacColl sings Blow Boys Blow

Oh, was you ever on the Congo River?
    Blow boys blow
Where fever makes the white man shiver
    Blow me bully boys blow

A Yankee ship come down the river
Her mast and yards they shone like silver

And who do you think was the skipper of her?
Why, Bully Hayes, the nigger lover

Who do you think was first mate of her?
Why, Shanghai Brown, the sailor robber

What do you think she’s got for cargo?
Why, black sheep that have run the embargo

What do you think they’ve got for dinner?
Oh, monkey hearts and donkey’s liver

Yonder comes the Arrow packet
She fires the gun, can’t you hear the racket?

Oh blow me boys and blow forever
Oh blow me down that Congo river

Danny Spooner sings Blow Boys Blow

Oh blow me boys I loves to hear yer
    Blow boys blow
Oh blow me boys I loves to hear yer
    Blow me bully boys blow.

A yankee ship beat round the Horn
As she rolls her down her tops’ls shone.

She’s a Blackball ship as true as ever,
Her masts and spars they shine like silver.

And how do ye know she’s a Blackball clipper?
By the blood and guts that runs in her scuppers.

And how d’ye know she’s a Yankee liner?
By the Stars and Bars that flies behind her.

Sail oh! Sail oh, she’s the Shenandoah,
Wiv a shanghaied crew and full of sugar.

And who d’ye think is the skipper of her?
Oh Shotgun Murphy the tough old bugger.

She rolls her scroll below the water,
As the wind tries to tear the mainmast from her.

She’s homeward bound from old Hawaii
Where them dark eyed gels love the men from the sea.

Well blow me boys and blow forever,
We sail her through the Cape Horn weather.

Maddy Prior and the Girls sing Blow Boys Blow

Say, was you never down the Congo River?
    Blow boys blow
Yes, I’ve been down the Congo River
    Blow me bully boys blow

The Congo she’s a mighty river
Where the fever makes the white man shiver

Beware, beware the Bight of Benin
Where one comes out for forty that goes in

What do you think we had for supper?
Oh, handspike hash and a roll in the scuppers

What do you think we had for cargo?
Why, black sheep that have run the embargo

It’s blow today and blow tomorrow
We’ll blow this hell-ship all in sorrow


Transcribed from Ewan MacColl’s singing by Reinhard Zierke