Episode 2: What Do You Do With 2 Podcast Hosts Talking About Irish Sea Shanties
Updated: Apr 28, 2022
Three categories that we’ll discuss:
When I was growing up, my parents had this black cassette tape called “Irish Drinking Songs” which was a pub recording of these classic Irish Drinking songs. Growing up, I just assumed that once I was an adult, all drinking would be accompanied by a string band and lots of singing. I listened to that cassette all the time and memorized the lyrics to the songs. It was a real trip. It deluded me into thinking that I was an Irish sailor living in the 1800’s, that I was drinking and chasing women in every port.
Labor songs (being a sailor sucked)
Many of these songs were designed to aid sailors in their work by providing something for them to do while they performed difficult and monotonous tasks. Songs could be lengthened if the task was longer. The classic here is “Drunken Sailor,” but we aren’t gonna talk about that one.
First off, being a sailor fucking blew. They lived off of hardtack and some vague “stews” while the captains and officers ate meat and fresh bread. Sailors worked all the time and it sucked. Obviously, they hated their bosses and wanted to end them. Tale as old as time.
Some great things about these labor songs are their overt hostility towards bosses. The song “Paddy, Get Back” has the lyric: If I ever get my hands on that shipping master,
I will murder him if it's the last thing that I do!
The refrain of the song is “Paddy, get back, take in the slack!
Heave away your capstan, heave a pawl,
Heave a pawl!
Bout ship and stations, there, be handy,
Rise tacks 'n sheets, 'n mains'l haul!”
It’s this constant refrain of do your work and shut up. And after two lines the refrain begins again. Here’s a lo-budge version of the song. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gv3p8uQQ99c
Drinking/Fighting songs (because being a sailor sucked, drinking was a pretty sweet thing to do)
“Here's to the Grog” or “All for me grog” is a classic drinking song. It pretty much posits that all of the things that this dude owns are awful but at least he has grog, which was a ration of rum and water. Everything that he owns blows, but he can drink and he spends all his money on it.
Peep the chorus: Here's to the grog, boys, the jolly, jolly grog
Here's to the rum and tobacco
I've a-spent all my tin with the lassies drinking gin
And to cross the briny ocean I must wander
Fairly depressing lyrics, but also self-aware and funny. He gets it. His life is a meaningless, destitute sham. So he gets drunk and bangs chicks (or dudes?).
One of my favorite sailor songs about drinking and fighting is called “Big Strong Man.” This was on my little cassette tape. It’s about this mythically strong guy named Sylvest who is pretty much the baddest and most jacked dude in the world. It uses Tall Tale language and it seems to be from around the time of WWI. It feels like some schoolyard thing where you threaten another kid by building up the mythology of your big brother.
“Here’s the chorus. He was my brother Sylvest (shout-What's he got?)
A row of forty medals on his chest (Big Chest!)
he killed fifty badmen in the west
he knew no rest, thinkin' a man's hell fire
don't push, just shove, plenty of room for you and me
he's got an arm (Got an Arm!)
like a leg (Like a leg!)
and a punch that can sick a battle ship (Big Ship!)
it takes all the army and the navy to put the wind up Sylvest”
Songs about Women (everyone’s favorite pastime is thinking about getting some cuddles and booty when you know you can’t)
From “Lovely Molly” we see a dude singing to his girl about how he will see her again even though he’s peacing out to the sea for a while. She’s way too fragile to endure the sailor’s life, and so he advises
“Those pretty little hands, love, could not stand a rough tackling
Those pretty little feet to the top could not go
Those cold wintry winds you could not endure them
So stay at home, darling, to the seas do not go.”
Here’s one with the best title ever: “The Saucy Sailor Boy.” This sailor boy wants to marry a lady, but he’s such a poor piece of trash that she refuses. They use the term “Jack tar” in this song, which just means “sailor.” So this guy comes to shore and he wants to marry some poor chick.
He was a saucy sailor boy
Who'd come from afar,
To ask a maid to be the bride
Of a poor Jack tar.
The maiden, a poor fisher girl,
Stood close by his side;
With scornful look she answered thus;
I'll not be your bride.
You're mad to think I'd marry you
Too ragged you are;
Begone, you saucy sailor boy,
Begone you Jack tar.
This song has a pretty dope “trick,” where the seemingly poor sailor is actually rich. He’s got gold and riches, but he just looks like a scumbag. So when he says that, she just immediately takes him at face value. And she’s like “OH WAIT! YOU’RE RICH? Let’s get married actually.” But he’s like, “fuck you, you showed your true colors. I’m out.” There is also a very worrying line here about consent, which I imagine is par for the course with SAILORS. But the sailor doesn’t say it–it’s actually the lady.
Stay! Stay! you saucy sailor boy,
Do not sail afar;
I love you and will marry you,
You silly Jack tar.
'Twas but to tease I answered so,
I thought you could guess
That when a maiden answers no
She always means yes.