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"Drunken Sailor" is a sea shanty, also known as "What Shall We Do with a/the Drunken Sailor?"
The shanty was sung to accompany certain work tasks aboard sailing ships, especially those that required a bright walking pace. It is believed to originate in the early 19th century or before, during a period when ships' crews, especially those of military vessels, were sufficiently large to permit hauling a rope whilst simply marching along the deck. With the advent of merchant packet and clipper ships and their smaller crews, which required different working methods, use of the shanty appears to have declined or shifted to other, minor tasks.
"Drunken Sailor" was revived as a popular song among non-sailors in the 20th century, and grew to become one of the best-known songs of the shanty repertoire among mainstream audiences. It has been performed and recorded by many musical artists and appeared in many popular media.
Although the song's lyrics vary, they usually contain some variant of the question, "What shall we do with a drunken sailor, early in the morning?" In some styles of performance, each successive verse suggests a method of sobering or punishing the drunken sailor. In other styles, further questions are asked and answered about different people.
The song is No. 322 in the Roud Folk Song Index.
Although typically conceived as a song originating in British vessels, the evidence describing it in its earliest appearances come from America. The first published description of the shanty is found in an account of an 1839 whaling voyage out of New London, Connecticut to the Pacific Ocean. It was used as an example of a song that was, "performed with very good effect when there is a long line of men hauling together." The tune was noted, along with these lyrics:
Although this is the earliest discovered published mention, there is some indication that the shanty is at least as old as the 1820s. In Eckstorm and Smyth's collection Minstrelsy of Maine (published 1927), the editors note that one of their grandmothers, who sang the song, claimed to have heard it used during the task of tacking (i.e. "walking away" with braces) on the Penobscot River “probably considerably over a hundred years ago.”
Despite these indications of the song's existence in the first half of the 19th century, references to it are rare. They include a reference in a work of fiction from 1855 in which a drunken female cook is portrayed singing,
A five-verse set of lyrics and tune were published in the third edition of Davis and Tozer's shanty collection, Sailor Songs or ‘Chanties’. However, the title did not appear in any of the other major shanty collections or articles of the 19th century.
When John Masefield next published the lyrics in 1906, he called it a "bastard variety" of shanty which was "seldom used"—an assertion supported by the lack of many earlier references. This style of shanty, called a "runaway chorus" by Masefield, and as a "walk away" or "stamp and go" shanty by others (see: Sea shanty:Types), was said to be used for tacking and which was sung in "quick time." The verses in Masefield's version asked what to do with a "drunken sailor," followed by a response, then followed by a question about a "drunken soldier," with an appropriate response.
Capt. W. B. Whall, a veteran English sailor of the 1860s–70s, was the next author to publish on "Drunken Sailor." He claimed that this was one of only two chanties that was sung in the British Royal Navy (where singing at work was generally frowned upon). Moreover, the song had largely gone out of use as a "walk away" shanty when the size of ships' crews was reduced and it was no longer possible to use that working method. The lyrics given by Whall are essentially the same as those from Masefield: about a "drunken sailor," then a "drunken soldier." Significantly, he stated that these were the only lyrics, as evidently the task did not take long to complete.
The above-mentioned and other veteran sailors characterized "Drunken Sailor" as a "walk away" shanty, thus providing a possible explanation for why it was not noted more often in the second half of the 19th century. Later sailors' recollections, however, attested that the song continued to be used as a shanty, but for other purposes. Richard Maitland, an American sailor of the 1870s, sang it for song collector Alan Lomax in 1939, when he explained,
Now this is a song that's usually sang when men are walking away with the slack of a rope, generally when the iron ships are scrubbing their bottom. After an iron ship has been twelve months at sea, there's a quite a lot of barnacles and grass grows onto her bottom. And generally, in the calm latitudes, up in the horse latitudes in the North Atlantic Ocean, usually they rig up a purchase for to scrub the bottom.
Another American sailor of the 1870s, Frederick Pease Harlow, wrote in his shanty collection that "Drunken Sailor" could be used when hauling a halyard in "hand over hand" fashion to hoist the lighter sails. This would be in contradistinction to the much more typical "halyards shanties," which were for heavier work with an entirely different sort of pacing and formal structure. Another author to ascribe a function, Richard Runciman Terry, also said it could be used for "hand over hand" hauling. Terry was one of few writers, however, to also state the shanty was used for heaving the windlass or capstan.
"Drunken Sailor" began its life as a popular song on land at least as early as the 1900s, by which time it had been adopted as repertoire for glee singing at Eton College. Elsewhere in England, by the 1910s, men had begun to sing it regularly at gatherings of the Savage Club of London.
The song became popular on land in America as well. A catalogue of "folk-songs" from the Midwest included it in 1915, where it was said to be sung while dancing "a sort of reel." More evidence of lands-folk's increasing familiarity with "Drunken Sailor" comes in the recording of a "Drunken Sailor Medley" (ca.1923) by U.S. Old Time fiddler John Baltzell. Evidently the tune's shared affinities with Anglo-Irish-American dance tunes helped it to become readapted as such, as Baltzell included it among a set of reels.
Classical composers utilized the song in compositions. Australian composer Percy Grainger incorporated the song into his piece "Scotch Strathspey And Reel" (1924). Malcolm Arnold used its melody in his Three Shanties for Woodwind Quintet, Op. 4 (1943).
The glut of writings on sailors' songs and published collections that came starting in the 1920s and which supported a revival of interest in shanty-singing for entertainment purposes on land. As such, R.R. Terry's very popular shanty collection, which had begun to serve as a resource for renditions of shanties on commercial recordings in the 1920s, was evidently used by the Robert Shaw Chorale for their 1961 rendition. The Norman Luboff Choir recorded the song in 1959 with the yet uncharacteristic phrasing, "What'll we do...?"
The song has been widely recorded under a number of titles by a range of performers including the King's Singers, Pete Seeger and The Irish Rovers. It also forms part of a contrapuntal section in the BBC Radio 4 UK Theme by Fritz Spiegl, in which it is played alongside Greensleeves.
Don Janse produced a particularly artistic arrangement in the early 1960s which has been included in several choral music anthologies. The arrangement was first recorded by The Idlers. This arrangement has been performed by several collegiate groups over the years, including the Yale Alley Cats.
The Belgian skiffle-singer Ferre Grignard covered the song in 1966.
The Two Ronnies featured the song in one of their comedy sketches, in which the opening chorus was modified as "Hoorah! And up she rises, She's got legs of different sizes, One's very small and the other wins prizes, Early in the morning."
Freddie McKay recorded a version of the song in 1972 at Studio 1 for producer Coxsone Dodd that was released on the Money Disc label. He later recorded the song for producer Jah Woosh in 1983 which was released on the Mr. Tipsy label.
In John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme, a sketch uses lyrics from the song as suggestions for punishments of a drunken naval officer.
A version of the song is sung by the crew in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, while captaining the protagonist's ship "Jackdaw".
The word "early" is often pronounced as "earl-aye" in modern performances. Publications in the 19th and early 20th century, however, did not note this was the case. Neither the field recordings of Richard Maitland by Alan Lomax (1939) nor those of several veteran sailors in Britain by James Madison Carpenter in the 1920s use this pronunciation. Yet on his popular recording of 1956, Burl Ives pronounced "earl-eye." Subsequently, Stan Hugill, whose influential Shanties from the Seven Seas was published in 1961, stated in that work that the word was "always" pronounced "earl-aye," but his statement is belied by the considerable body of earlier evidence.
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