Histe Them Sails

Histe Them Sails

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I've made blog postings about different aspects of music that had caught my eye mostly with folk music and usually quite convoluted. 
   These include:

Wasn't That a Time
Two by Two
Wild Old Family
The First Time

   Well, folks or folkies, here's another.

   The other day I heard the Beach Boys on the radio performing Sloop John B, a song I'd heard before and rather enjoyed.  But I started wondering why a band who mainly focused on surfing, cars and young love decided to do a song about an old sailing adventure.  So I rolled up my sleeves and got to work digging.

     The Beach Boys, consisting of three Wilson brothers- Brian, Carl and Dennis - a cousin, Mike Love and a friend, Alan Jardine, were formed in 1961. Between 1961 and 1966 they had released 10 albums, most of which centered around surfing and cars. They were undoubtedly the premiere American band at the time (and possibly of all time).  In 1966 They released the album Pet Sounds (of all The Beach Boy albums I've heard, by far my favorite), a departure from their signature adolescent fantasies.  The Beatles, who (from what I've read, at least) were fans of The Beach Boys, had already recorded Yesterday, a sign of their maturity and the Rolling Stones would soon release Ruby Tuesday, their own grown-up song.  There must have been something in the air as well as the airwaves. 
     In my readings I came across critics who praised the inclusion of Sloop John B and those who found it out of place on that album.  I guess it depends on whether one sees the album as a collection of songs or a composition comprised of songs.  I never really gave that aspect much thought.

   

I just love goats

    Sloop John B was released as a single almost simultaneously with the release of Pet Sounds in the late Spring of 1966.  Although it only ever reached #3 on the (U.S.) Billboard chart, Rolling Stone magazine placed it as #276 in their list of the greatest 500 songs of all time (ahead of some pretty impressive entries). 


     Alan Jardine was/is a folk music fan. Familiar with the Kingston Trio's 1958 rendition of  The Wreck of the John B, he suggested his group do a cover. After altering the chord progression and demonstrating the harmonic possibilities, he finally convinced Brian Wilson, the de facto group leader, who then created an arrangement with some lyric changes. 


     Jardine's involvement with the adaptation is highlighted by his 2005 children's book, Sloop John B: A Pirate's Tale.  

     The 32 page picture book tells the story of how "grandfather and me" defeated pirates who commandeered their boat. 


     Was the Sloop John B based on reality?  The Great Bahamian Hurricanes of 1899 and 1932 by Wayne Neely tells us there was indeed a sponger sloop named John B that wrecked and sunk at Governor's Harbour in Eleuthera around 1900, the year following the Great Bahamas Hurricane of 1899.  Sponging was an important industry that was hurt by that hurricane.  Apparently the song was created sometime after that event.  

     The book, Pieces of Eight by Richard le Gallienne, published in 1918,  mentions it twice, first in chapter IV, giving the lyrics:

then in chapter IX:


     But Gallienne had already published a sort of preview to his book in Harper's  magazine for Dec. 1916 in an article entitled:

     In that article he give the lyrics for The John B. Sail same as above but with the additional:

The poor cook got the fits,
Throw away all o' my grits,
Captain's pig done eat up all o' my corn.
Lemme go home, I vant to go home,
I feel so break-up, I vant to go home.
(Chorus)

Steamboat go by steam,
Sailboat go by sail,
My girl's hat 'ain't got no tail.
Lemme go home, I vant to go home,
I feel so break-up, I vant to go home.
(Chorus)

Send all the things from ashore,
Let all the breezes blow,
I'm so sorry that I can longer stay,
Good-by to you — Tra-la-la-lu,
This is the vorst trip since I vas born.
(Chorus)

 

      Carl Sandburg's 1927 American Songbag, sort of the go-to place for this song, looks like this (it also talks about the discovery of the wreckage of the John B) :



  

   Sandburg was neither the only, nor the greatest preserver of folk songs. John Lomax and his son Alan not only collected ethnic music from around the globe, but they made field recordings (using the primitive and cumbersome recording equipment available at the time) to save authentic performaces.  In 1935 Alan Lomax with folklorist Mary Elizabeth Barnicle made a field recording of the Cleveland Simmons Group at Old Bight, Cat Island in the Bahamas doing a song he titled, Histe Up the John B. Sail.


     In January of 1940, two field recordings of Hoist Up the John B Sail were conducted by Florida folklorist Stetson Kennedy with his photographer Robert Harrison Cook for the WPA in Key West Florida.

   The first, on January 20th, featured Theodore "Tea Roll" Rolle (with trombone and guitar).
Tea Roll was a sponge fisherman who,  as a singer, pianist, and accordion player from Andros Island,  moonlighted as a wedding reception musician.

   The second, on January 23rd, featured Robert Butler:


     Lee Hayes, who along with Pete Seeger, Fred Hellerman, and Ronnie Gilbert formed The Weavers, adapted the song for their particular style. The Weavers released their Wreck of the John B in 1950:


     In 1952 a Nassau musician, Blind Blake Higgs --who after going blind at age 16 became a tourist attraction for 30 years playing his brand of Calypso, mostly on banjo and ragtime guitar at which he was the noted master, at the Royal Victoria Hotel in Nassau (with the house band, the Royal Victor Calypsos)-- recorded a very catchy-Calypso rendition with his own lyrics:


     This leads us to the Kingston Trio.  This band was one of the most popular groups of its time.  After catapulting to fame with their sanitized cover of Tom Dooley (see Doc Watson for a later but more faithful rendition), they performed and recorded many Weavers' songs, including the Wreck of the John B, with great skill but no bite whatsoever. They would later claim they were never folk singers though they were ironically a catalyst for the movement they wanted no association with.   Their cover of John B is of particular importance here because it's the version that inspired Al Jardine to convince Brian Wilson (although Wilson didn't care for the Kingston Trio) to consider the song and adapt it to their own style.

     
     Although the story of how a song about Caribbean boating disaster resulted getting recorded by a prominent surfer/car/young-love group ends here,  I wanted to add several more covers that I found particularly interesting.

     In 1959 Johnny Cash recorded it as I Wanna Go Home:

   
      Lonnie Donegan, a very popular British performer in his day, did a cover in 1960, also as I Wanna Go Home. Donegan, however, didn't like the lyrics and hired novelty songwriter Paddy Roberts to change them.

 


  Two great guitarists, Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed, did instrumental version of the Wreck of the John B in 1972: