Shanties (shipboard work songs) are fun to listen to because of their typically jaunty rhythm and hilarious lyrics. One exception is the popular ‘Leave Her, Johnny’, which was sung by 19th-century sailors on the Atlantic Ocean packet trade. Despite its dash of humour, this shanty tells of the trials and tribulations of seafarers.

Walter Jeffery had a brief note on ‘Leave Her, Johnny’ in his 1900 book ‘A Century of Our Sea Story’: ‘This is sung when the men are pumping out the ship, their last duty after making fast to the wharf before being paid off, and in the song they take the opportunity of expressing their opinions of the officers in very plain language.” The song should resonate with many of today’s merchant sailors with its reference to low wages, poor food, foul weather, overwork and tyrannical captains and chief mates.

Click here to learn more about the origins and history of ‘Leave Her, Johnny’.

The following are two renditions of the shanty. The first is by Hazel Askew, a singer, multi-instrumentalist and composer from London; the second by Roger McGuinn, an American folk singer and former frontman of the rock band, The Byrds. Although they have slightly different lyrics, both versions are beautiful and can tug at one’s heartstrings.

Click here to download the song.

Lyrics:

Oh the times was hard and the wages low,
Leave her, Johnny, leave her!
But now once more ashore we’ll go,
And it’s time for us to leave her!

Chorus:
Leave her, Johnny, leave her!
Oh, leave her, Johnny, leave her!
For the voyage is done and the winds don’t blow,
And it’s time for us to leave her!

Oh the work was hard and the voyage was long,
The sea was high and the gales were strong.

The food was bad and the ship was slow,
But now ashore again we’ll go.

And the captain was bad but the mate was worse,
He could knock you down with a sigh and a curse

Oh the wind was foul, all work, no pay,
To Liverpool docks from Frisco Bay.

We was made to pump all night and day,
And we were half-dead had nowt to say.

We’d be better off in a nice clean jail,
With a long night in and plenty of ale.

The sails are furled and our work is done,
And now on shore we’ll have our fun.

Copyright © English Folk Dance and Song Society, National Maritime Museum and
Hazel Askew, 2016

Lyrics (courtesy of Roger McGuinn):

I thought I heard the old man say,
“Leave her, Johnny, leave her,
It’s a long, hard pull to your next payday
And it’s time for us to leave her”.

—Chorus—
Leave her, Johnny, leave her!
Oh, leave her, Johnny, leave her,
Oh the voyage is done and the winds don’t blow,
And it’s time for us to leave her!

Oh, the skipper was bad, but the mate was worse.
Leave her, Johnny, leave her
He’d blow you down with a spike and a curse,
And it’s time for us to leave her.

—Chorus—
Leave her, Johnny, leave her!
Oh, leave her, Johnny, leave her,
For the voyage is done and the winds don’t blow,
And it’s time for us to leave her!

Oh pull you lubbers or you’ll get no pay
Oh, leave her, Johnny, leave her,
Oh pull you lubbers and then belay
And it’s time for us to leave her!

—Chorus—
Leave her, Johnny, leave her!
Oh, leave her, Johnny, leave her,
For the voyage is done and the winds don’t blow,
And it’s time for us to leave her!

And now it’s time to say goodbye
Oh, leave her, Johnny, leave her,
Them pilings they is a-drawing nigh
And it’s time for us to leave her!

—Chorus—x2

~ Barista Uno

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