Many would probably assume that ‘The Wellerman’ (full title: ‘Soon May the Wellerman Come’) is the most popular shanty. But that song is a 19th-century whaling ballad from New Zealand, not a shanty. The popularity crown goes rather to ‘Drunken Sailor’.

Also known as ‘What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor?’, ‘Drunken Sailor’ has been recorded by numerous musical artists; belted out by bar patrons; and performed by school choirs and military bands. It is a simple song about how to wake a sailor from his drunken stupor or punish him for his excessive love for booze. That it has had such a strong appeal to many is not surprising.

  • ‘Drunken Sailor’ has a catchy, rousing tune that makes one want to dance. Watch the dancers from the Rival Irish Dance Studio Almaty of Kazakhstan perform a number to the music of “Drunken Sailor” by the Irish Rovers:

  • It is loaded with humour that sometimes borders on the silly. Consider these lines from the Irish Rovers version of the shanty (click here to play and download the song):

Shave his belly with a rusty razor

Put him in a long boat till he’s sober

Stick him in a scupper with a hosepipe bottom

Put him in the bed with the captain’s daughter

And these lines from ‘Drunken Sailor’ by Roger McGuinn (click here to play and download the song):

Pull out the plug and wet him all over

Put him in the bilge and make him drink it

Heave him by the leg with a running bowline

Keel haul him untill he gets sober

  • It caters to the commonly held view of sailors as happy-go-lucky fellows who love to drink to excess. The stereotype is outdated, of course, as well as unfair to the lads. Today’s merchant sailors are a lot more disciplined. There are strict regulations on alcohol consumption on board ships. And with all the training they have to undergo when they’re on shore, how many seafarers have the time to make merry and get inebriated?

‘Drunken Sailor’ has seen multiple iterations by singers representing a wide range of styles. Belgian folk legend Ferre Grignard (1939–1982) did a unique version which may have been far from the traditional shanty form but was damn good. Watch Grignard in this 1966 live performance:

~ Barista Uno

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