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Boney (Was a Warrior)

[ Roud 485 ; Ballad Index Doe006 ; Mudcat 84540 ; trad.]

The Everlasting Circle

Paul Clayton sang Boney Was a Warrior in 1956 on his Tradition album Whaling and Sailing Songs From the Days of Moby Dick. He noted:

This short-drag shanty was a great favorite for “sweating-up” the halyards at the end of a long pull. It was popular on both American and British ships and dates from shortly after Napoleon’s death in 1821.

A.L. Lloyd sang the short-drag shanty Boney in 1962 on the B-side of the musical score from the film Whaler Out of New Bedford. The album notes explained:

A short drag shanty. These simple shanties were used when only a few strong pulls were needed, as in boarding tacks and sheets and bunting up a sail in furling, etc. Boney was popular both in British and American vessels and in one American version Bonaparte is made to cross the Rocky Mountains.

Maddy Prior sang Boney as part of her song cycle With Napoleon in Russia on her 1999 album Ravenchild.

The X-Seaman’s Institute sang Boney on the 2004 Smithsonian Folkways anthology Classic Maritime Music.

Jack Shit sang Boney Was a Warrior in 2006 on the album of pirate ballads, sea songs and chanteys, Rogue’s Gallery.

Jackie Oates sang Boney Was a Warrior in 2011 on the anthology of sea songs collected from John Short by Cecil Sharp, Short Sharp Shanties Vol. 2. The album notes commented:

Short’s words were few—a mere two and a half verses—but sufficient to indicate that his, like every other version of the shanty, essentially followed Napoleon Bonaparte’s life story to a greater or lesser extent depending on the length of the job in hand (although, as Colcord points out, some versions introduced inventive variations on his life). We have simply borrowed some (of the true) verses from other versions—but by no means all that were available!

Most collectors express some surprise at the degree of sympathy expressed to Boney, forgetting the amount of English sympathy that there was for his cause—and not only amongst the lower classes: the ladies of Plymouth would parade the Barbican waving red handkerchiefs at Boney, imprisoned in the harbour on board the Bellerephon (“Billy Ruffian”) before being dispatched to St. Helena. By the time of Short, in any case, the threat of French invasion was well past, and Boney was becoming romantic hero.

Interestingly, while Terry says “I never met a seaman who has not hoisted topsails to this shanty”, Hugill claims that its use was “never, as Terry says, at topsails, for which it would have been too fast.” Hugill does concede that the uses of the shanty varied, sometimes “as a halyard song and others as a ‘short-haul’ or fore-sheet shanty. In the former, the pulls would be as I have marked them in my version, in the latter, the pulls would be on the ‘yah!’ and ‘-swar!’.” This is one of the relatively few shanties where Sharp marks the pulls (see notes to Bully in the Alley)— and they are on the ‘yah’ and ‘swar’, as Hugill describes—so John Short used this as a short haul or foresheet song. Perhaps, we are again dealing with a shanty that changed its purpose—Jackie has chosen a slower rendition which may be more appropriate to the time.

Sharp noted: “Mr. Short sang ‘Bonny’ not ‘Boney’, which is the more usual pronunciation; while his rendering of ‘John’ was something between the French ‘Jean’ and the English ‘John’.”

Tim Radford sang Boney in 2012 on his CD of maritime songs collected in Hampshire in 1905-1909 by George Gardiner, From Spithead Roads.


Dead Horse’s version of Boney Was a Warrior in the Mudcat Café

Boney was a warrior,
    Way hey ya
A warrior a terrier,
    John Francois.

Boney went ta school in France,
He learned ta make them Rooshians dance.

For Boney fought the Rooshians,
The Oostrians and Prooshians.

Boney marched on Moscow,
He lost his army in the snow.

Moscow was a blazin,
He had ta turn around agin.

We met him in Trafalgar Bay,
Carried his top-mast away.

Boney went to Elbow,
There he got an overthrow.

Boney marched to Waterloo,
The big-nose Duke, he put him thru.

He beat the Prooshians fairly,
He beat the English, nearly.

He met the Duke of Wellington,
That day his downfall had begun.

Boney went a cruisi-in,
Aboard the Billy Ruffi-in.

Boney went to Saint Helen,
He never did come back again.

They put poison in his food,
Didn’t do him any good.

Boney broke his heart and died,
In Corsica he wished he’d stayed.

For Boney was a Corsican,
A rortin snortin Corsican.

Boney was a general,
A randy dandy general.

A.L. Lloyd sings Boney

Boney was a warrior
A warrior, a terrier,
    Jean François!

Boney fought the Prussians,
Boney fought the Russians.

Boney went to Elba,
Boney he came back again.

Moscow was a-blazin’,
And Boney was a-ragin’.

Boney went a-cruisin’,
Aboard the Billy Ruffian.

Awain in St. Helena,
Boney broke his head and died.

’Twas on the plains of Waterloo,
He met the boys who put him through.

He was a ruddy general,
A ruddy, snotty general.

Give her that to gallant sails,
It’s a weary way to Baltimore.

Pray the captain drive up,
Must-a(?) chafed and leathered.

Maddy Prior sings Boney

Boney was a warrior
    Wey, hey, ah
A warrior, a terrier
    John François

He planned a distant enterprise
A great and distant enterprise

He is off to fight the Russian bear
He plans to drive him from his lair

They left with banners all ablaze
The heads of Europe stood amazed

He thinks he’ll beat the Russkies
And the bonny bunch of roses

Boney was a warrior
A warrior, a terrier