While many people might cite "Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me)" as one of their favorite pirate songs, you may be surprised to learn that as seaworthy as the song is, it was never actually sung by pirates. The song was written for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland (though it should be noted that parts of the song are based on a fictional sea song from the book Treasure Island).
Traditional sailor's songs were often more like ballads and told a story, such as the song “The Ballad of Captain Kidd,” which recounts the twists and turns in famous pirate William Kidd’s life. Other songs were work songs, or sea shanties, which were sung by the sailors as they performed various ship tasks like hauling ropes or cleaning the deck. These songs were sung in sync with their movements and helped to set a pace and alleviate some of the boredom that came from performing these monotonous tasks day after day.
Get ready to weigh anchor and hoist the mizzen, because it's time to set sail and sing out.
Perhaps one of the most well-known shanties, this song is also known as “Drunken Whaler” or “What Should We Do with a Drunken Sailor?” The song was typically sung by large crews - they would perform ship tasks, such as hoisting the sails, in sync with the rhythm of the song.
As the song’s title suggests, it offers a variety of creative ways to deal with a drunken sailor, such as shaving “his belly with a rusty razor” and putting “him in the scuppers with a hose-pipe on him.”
The "her" in question in “Leave Her, Johnny” isn’t a woman, but a ship. This song was usually sung at the end of a voyage after a ship had docked at the port. While sailors were undoubtedly thrilled to be back on land after a long and back-breaking voyage, this song shows the affection sailors develop for their temporary home.
While the melody is soft and sentimental, lyrics like, “Leave her, Johnny, leave her! There's many a worser we've sailed in” and “On a leakin' ship an' a rotten, harping crew” don’t romanticize a sailor’s life at sea.
The title of “Blow the Man Down” refers to a captain of a Black Baller ship using his whip to knock down one of his crew members. Black Ballers were a group of fast-sailing passenger-line ships that sailed back and forth from New York and Liverpool. Since the service banked on speed, the faster the ship went, the better - and so many sailors fell under the whip of their captain’s hand.
The following verse hints at some of the brutality the crew suffered:
But when th' Black Baller gets clear o' th' land.
W-ay! Hey? Blow th' man down!
It's then as ye'll hear th' sharp word o' command.
Give us th' time an' we'll blow th' man down!
There are several versions of this mournful song, but the two most popular describe either a sailor who dreams of his love and realizes she is dead, or a woman who has a similar dream about her love, who is at sea. In one of the versions, the narrator sings:
“I dreamed a dream the other night / Lowlands, lowlands, away my John / I saw my love dressed all in white / My lowlands, away.”