Hanging Johnny : hang, boys, hang

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“Hanging Johnny” is an halyard shanty in which we talk about the hangman who hangs all those who bother him! Immediately, the scholars wanted to find a historical figure who incarnated this executioner in Jack Ketch notorious executioner in the seventeenth century London.

But for the sailors the phrase “hanging Johnny” has a whole other meaning.

THE WORK OF THE HANGED SAILOR

In order to hoist the heavier sails, they followed a strange procedure : the younger and nimble sailors (and less paid as they were apprentices) climbed up on the masthead and, after grabbing a halyard, jumped in the air, hanging like so many hangers. As they descended, they were helped by the efforts of the remaining sailors to slowly reach the deck.
Joys explained that “hanging Johnny” did not refer to a sheriff’s hangman, but instead to nimble young sailors who, when a topsail was to be hoisted, would climb to the masthead and “swing out” on the proper halyard. They would then ride to the deck as the men at the foot of the mast brought them down by their successive pulls. Joys recalled one chanteyman who would always tell the boys when to swing out by shouting up to them, “Hang, you bastards, hang!” Then, while the boys were hanging on the halyard fifty feet or more above the deck, he’d start his song and the crew would make two pulls on each chorus. When the boys hit the deck, they would tail on behind the other men and pull with them until the work was finished.
Joys added that the word “hang” was “the best goddamn pullin’ word in the language, especially on a down haul.” Ashley said the tune was “a bit mournful, but a good one for hoisting light canvas,” noting that the words enabled the sailors to find fault, good-naturedly, with all their real and fancied enemies, “if the work lasted long enough.”
 (from “Windjammers: Songs of the Great Lakes Sailors” by Ivan H. Walton and Joe Grimm, 2002 here)

So on Mudcats a heated debate has opened up: “The words “Hang, boys, hang,” are used in a topsail-halliard hoist, when sweating up the yard “two blocks” where, in swaying off, the whole weight of the body is used. The sing-out, from some old shellback, usually being words such as “Hang, heavy! Hang, buttocks! Hang you sons of ——-, Hang.” After setting the topsails, we gave her the main-topgallant sail, which was all she could carry in a heavy head-sea. The decks were awash all day. “…. the chantey was sung with a jerk and a swing as only chanteys in 6/8 time can be sung. While the words were of Negro extraction, yet it was a great favorite with us and sung nearly every time the topsails were hoisted.” (from Frederick Pease Harlow, 1928, The Making of a Sailor, Dover reprint of Publication Number 17 of the Marine Research Society, Salem, MA here)

Definitely a perfect “pirate song”! I found this piece of film about the golden age of the great vessels in which the song is sung.

Oh they call me hanging Johnny.
Away, boys, away.
They says I hangs for money.
Oh hang, boys, hang.
And first I hanged my Sally
and then I hanged my granny.

JOHN SHORT VERSION

Sharp publishes a set of words in which the shantyman does not himself hang people and indeed sings, I never hung nobody. Hugill is adamant (as is Terry) that no shantyman ever claimed that anyone other than himself was the hangman, and that “Sentimental verses like some collectors give were never sung – Sailor John hanged any person or thing he would think about without a qualm.” Checking these ‘some collectors’, one finds several who elect only to hang the bad guys – liars, murderers, etc. – are these the verses Hugill means by ‘sentimental’ or is he having a go at Sharp for the shantyman not being the hangman himself? Sharp’s notebooks show that he recorded from Short the same as he published. It could be that Short is self-censoring but it seems unlikely given that Short seems happy, in various other shanties, to sing text that might not be regarded as genteel (e.g. Nancy, Lucy Long, Shanadore). Short was, however, a deeply religious man and, if this is not simply an early and less developed form of the shanty, then he may have deliberately avoided casting himself as hangman – we will never know! Notwithstanding, and contrary to Hugill’s assertion, there was at least one shantyman who actually sang I never hung nobody.

Collectors’/publishers’ reactions to the shanty are curiously mixed: Bullen merely notes that “shanties whose choruses were adapted for taking two pulls in them… were exceedingly useful”, Fox-Smith that it had an “almost macabre irony which is not found in any other shanty”, and Maitland that “This is about as doleful a song as I ever heard” but, in an almost poetic description points out that “there’s a time when it comes in. For instance after a heavy blow, getting more sail on the ship. The decks are full of water and the men cannot keep their feet. The wind has gone down, but the seas are running heavy. A big comber comes over the rail; the men are washed away from the rope. If it wasn’t for the man at the end of the rope gathering in the slack as the men pull, all the work would have to be done over again.” – Horses for courses! (from here)

Tom Brown from Short Sharp Shanties : Sea songs of a Watchet sailor vol 1


They called me hanging Johnny,
urrhay-i-, urrhay-i-,
They called me hanging Johnny
so hang, boys, hang
They hanged me poor old father
They hanged me poor old mother
Yes they hanged me mother
Me sister and me brother
They hanged me sister Sally
They strung her up so canny
They said I handeg for money
But I never hanged nobody
Oh boys we’ll haul and hang the ship
oh haul her ropes so neat
We’ll hang him forever,
We’ll hang for better weather,
A rope, a beam, a ladder,
I’ll hang ye all together

ADDITIONAL VERSIONS

Stan Ridgway from  Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys, ANTI 2006. Masterful interpretation that transforms the shanty into a melancholy folk song

The Salts live in a jaunty version

 Stan Ridgway lyrics
I
They call me hanging Johnny,
yay (away )-hay-i-o
I never hanged nobody
hang, boys, hang
Well first I hanged your mother
Me sister and me brother
I’d hang to make things jolly
I’d hang all wrong and folly
A rope, a beam, a ladder,
I’ll hang ye all together
Well next I hanged me granny
I’d hang the wholly family
They call me hanging Johnny,
I never hanged nobody
II
Come hang, come haul together,
Come hang for finer weather,
Hang on from the yardarm
Hang the sea and buy a big farm
They call me hanging Johnny,
I never hanged nobody
I’d hang the mates and skippers,
I’d hang ‘em by their flippers
I’d hang the highway robber,
I’d hang the burglar jobber;
I’d hang a noted liar,
I’d hang a bloated friar;
They say I hung a copper,
I gave him the long dropper

LINK
http://mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=72779
http://mainlynorfolk.info/peter.bellamy/songs/hangingjohnny.html
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/20774/20774-h/20774-h.htm#Hanging_Johnny
http://www.contemplator.com/sea/hanging.html
http://www.musicanet.org/robokopp/shanty/thycalme.htm