Posted by: Blue Lou Logan | October 12, 2012

Songs of Logan #3: Leave Her, Johnny


illustration by Stan Hugill

The sea shanty, lest we forget and think of it simply as a song about life on the sea, is functional music.  Its structure and its rhythm are meant to not just accompany work but coordinate it and to make it tolerable.  Picture a dozen and more men pulling lines together on the beat of well-known choruses like “Way-hey, blow the man down,” or, simply, “Haul on th’ bowline, th’ bowline haul.”  Shanties are often categorized by how form meets function.  If there is a ‘bible’ in my life, it is Stan Hugill‘s Shanties from the Seven Seas.  Hugill sorts shanties broadly into two types.  The first is “hauling songs,” made for intermittent operations like pulling sheets or halyards, typically in a “salty” 6/8 meter and usually hard to trace to their exact origin.  The second is “heaving songs” for jobs that require more continuous work like turning the capstan to weigh anchor or warp the ship, or for pumping.  Heaving songs are usually in 4/4 time and descended from songs–often still labor songs–from land.

“Leave Her, Johnny” is unique in its maritime function.  As a heaving song, it might have been sung either at the pumps or at the capstan.  Yet it was only sung in one context:  the very end of the voyage.  “Leaving her” meant leaving the ship.  This shanty was sung as the bilge was pumped out before coming into port or as they were warping to the dock.  What makes “Leave Her, Johnny” even more unique was its lyrical function of airing grievances–the only time that this could be done out on the open deck.  As a result, the only real constant in each rendition of the song was the melody and the chorus; the verses would have varied according to what there was to complain about.  Hugill gives twenty-three common verses and another eleven possibilities.  This was ultimately up to the improvisation of the shantyman.  Here are the chorus and some representative verses, drawn from Hugill via the song’s page on contemplator.com.  The verses would have been sung by the shantyman, while the italicized refrains and the choruses would have been sung by all the men.  The last verse is my favorite.

(chorus)
Leave her, Johnny, leave her.
Ooooh!  Leave her Johnny, leave her.
For the voyage is done and the winds don’t blow,
An’ it’s time for us to leave her.

Oh, I thought I heard the Ol’ Man say,
Leave her, Johnny, Leave her!
Tomorrow ye will get your pay,
An’ it’s time for us to leave her!

The work wuz hard an’ the voyage wuz long,
Leave her, Johnny, Leave her!
The sea was high an’ the gales wuz strong.
An’ it’s time for us to leave her!

The grub was bad an’ the wages low,
Leave her, Johnny, Leave her!
But now once more ashore we’ll go.
An’ it’s time for us to leave her!

She will not wear, nor steer, nor stay,
Leave her, Johnny, Leave her!
Her sails an’ gear all carried away.
An’ it’s time for us to leave her!

Oh, sing that we boys will never be
Leave her, Johnny, Leave her!
In a hungry bitch the likes o’ she.
An’ it’s time for us to leave her!

The mate was a bucko an’ the Old Man a Turk,
Leave her, Johnny, Leave her!
The bosun wuz a beggar with the middle name o’ Work.
An’ it’s time for us to leave her!

turning the capstan

The problem with tracing the history of folk songs is that, essentially by definition, they originate in oral tradition.  If the main difficulty with finding the origins of Scottish folk songs is that they will very likely disappear into ancient time, then the main challenge with shanties is the closed culture from which they came.  In either case, a common folkloric approach is to find–or at least posit–connections with similar songs.  Hugill was one of that rare breed that was raised in the tradition, practiced it in its original context, and studied it academically.  In the case of “Leave Her, Johnny,” Hugill’s own work and that of scholars before him point to an older shanty, “Across the Rockies,” dating from perhaps the time of the Irish Potato Famine, i.e. the 1840’s.  If the title seems oddly un-maritime, keep in mind that this could be a song borrowed from land; Hugill specifically hypothesizes that it is “probably a Irish-Negro mixture” (pardon the old language).  This song evolved into “Across the Western Ocean,” sung aboard the Western Ocean Packets, which led in turn to “Leave Her, Johnny.”  There are other possible connections:  a “resemblance,” according to the well-known Cecil Sharp, to the song “Seventeen Come Sunday,” and more remotely to “The Twa Sisters,” dating back as far as seventeenth century and one of the famous “Child Ballad” types (“Child 10”).  While I naturally respect scholars such as Child and Sharp as preservationists, folklore studies has come a along way from their old taxonomic approach, and I am naturally suspicious of equating similarity with historical connection.  It means more to me when Hugill writes, “I learnt [sic] it partly from my mother’s father…and partly from an old Irish sailor.”

There are many shanties and many shanties that I love.  “Leave Her, Johnny” has a melody that sticks in my head, a great context, and lyrics snarky enough to make me grin.  Of the recordings out there, I pick only two…

  • Johnny Collins, from Shanties & Songs of the Sea.  This was the first CD dedicated solely to sea shanties that I ever bought, and it is still my benchmark.  Johnny Collins did not learn the art of the shantyman at sea, but during the 1960’s he came to the forefront of the British folk revival and especially the performance of sea songs in an authentic manner.  His voice, which apparently has an “East Anglian brogue,” is a pleasure to hear.  Amazon.com lists this solely as an import, which means you’re better off trying to track down a used copy (Amazon marketplace and gemm.com are good starting points).  It is not on iTunes, but, luckily, you can find Collins’ rendition of “Leave Her, Johnny” on YouTube here.
  • Stan Rogers, from From Coffee House to Concert Hall.  The importance of Stan Rogers cannot be overestimated–to the music of the sea, to the culture of the Maritime Provinces, and to Canada itself.  He also had one of the best baritone voices in folk music, along with Gordon Lightfoot and Gordon Bok…more on that later.  Although raised in Ontario, he was of Maritime stock on both sides of of the family and spent summers with them in Nova Scotia.  As the story goes, Stan’s Aunt June from Canso got his career out of a rut when she suggested singing about his own background.  He made a name both writing his own songs–eg, the perennial faux-shanty “Barrett’s Privateers“–and performing traditional repertoire.  He died tragically in a plane fire in 1983.  His booming version of “Leave Her, Johnny” is, poetically, the last track of his very last, posthumous live album.  It is available from iTunes and here on YouTube.

Coming up next:  A short trip to Ireland.

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