The Dead Horse sea shanty: Working off the Dead Horse

Leggi in italiano

kw294114Paying off the Dead Horse” perhaps derives from a custom in negotiations between breeders: once the agreement was sanctioned with a handshake there was no way to go back even if the horse died soon after.
Flogging a dead horse” or “beating a dead horse” has entered the nineteenth-century ways of saying to indicate a way of doing that has no prospects or outlets (it is useless to whip a horse when it is dead because it will never rise again).
But “to work (for) the dead horse” means wasting money to buy useless things (like a dead horse).

Working off the Dead Horse

“Working off the Dead Horse” still has a further meaning in marine jargonas, explained by Italo Ottonello: at the signing of the recruitment contract for long journeys, the sailors received an advance equal to three months of pay which, to guarantee the respect of the contract, it was provided in the form of “I will pay”, payable three days after the ship left the port, “as long as said sailor has sailed with that ship.” Everyone invariably ran to look for some complacent sharks who bought their promissory note at a discounted price, usually of forty percent, with much of the amount provided in kind.
So often there was nothing left of the advance, spended for the personal equipment (boots, wax, knives etc that were charged to the sailor) or more commonly for women and “drinks”.
Thus the sailor worked for the first month for “nothing” that is for “the dead horse”; others mean that it is the sailor who is an exploited horse because in the first month on the ship he does not work for himself, but for his creditors.
In support of the first hypothesis there are those who maintain that once the driver of a horse who was employed by a chief was responsible for the death of the horse and would no longer receive his salary until he repaid the cost of the horse.

HORSE ON THE DECK AT THE AUCTION!

A curious ceremony took place aboard the sailing vessels: a horse was assembled with discarded objects (stitched worn sails, old barrels and worn ropes) and dragged around the deck of the ship; then an auction was opened with the auctioneer who praised the good qualities of the animal, at the end the horse was hoisted with a rope on the highest flagpole and thrown into the sea, while the last part of a song’s melody was sung as requiem. called “Paying off the dead horse”.
The ceremony … became a rather half-hearted affair in the latter days of sail, whereas in days gone by it was a spectacular effort, particularly in the emigrant ships, and one of the best descriptions is given in Reminiscences of Travel in Australia, America, and Egypt,by R Tangye (London, 1884).” (Stan Hugill)

BURYING THE DEAD HORSE

The custom gradually declined and the song became a halyard shanty. Thus R Tangye writes : “Being a month at sea the sailors performed the ceremony called ” Burying the Dead Horse,” the explanation of which is this: Before leaving port seamen are paid a month in advance, so as to enable them to leave some money with their wives, or to buy a new kit, etc., and having spent the money they consider the first month goes for nothing, and so call it ” Working off the Dead Horse.” The crew dress up a figure to represent a horse; its body is made out of a barrel, its extremities of hay or straw covered with canvas, the mane and tail of hemp, the eyes of two ginger beer bottles, sometimes filled with phosphorus. When complete the noble steed is put on a box, covered with a rug, and on the evening of the last day of the month a man gets on to his back, and is drawn all round the ship by his shipmates, to the chanting of the following doggerel: oh! now, poor Horse, your time is come; And we say so, for we know so. Oh! many a race we know you’ve won, Poor Old Man. You have come a long long way, And we say so, for we know so. For to be sold upon this day, Poor Old Man. You are goin’ now to say good-bye, And we say so, for we know so. Poor old horse you’re a goin’ to die, Poor Old Man.
Having paraded the decks in order to get an audience, the sale of the horse by auction is announced, and a glib-mouthed man mounts the rostrum and begins to praise the noble animal, giving his pedigree, etc., saying it was a good one to go, for it had gone 6,000 miles in the past month ! The bidding then commences, each bidder being responsible only for the amount of his advance on the last bid. After the sale the horse and its rider are run up to the yard-arm amidst loud cheers. Fireworks are let off, the man gets off the horse’s back, and, cutting the rope, lets it fall into the water. The Requiem is then sung to the same melody. Now he is dead and will die no more, And we say so, for we know so. Now he is gone and will go no more; Poor Old Man.
After this the auctioneer and his clerk proceed to collect the ” bids,” and if in your ignorance of auction etiquette you should offer yours to the auctioneer, he politely declines it, and refers you to his clerk!”

The ritual echoes ancient propitiatory and auspicious rituals such as those of the Poor Old Horse at Christmas.

SEA SHANTY

Other titles: Poor old man, Poor old Horse
Use: Halyard e Long drag shanty

Assassin’s Creed -IV Black Flag


A poor old man came riding by.
And we say so, And we know so.
O, a poor old man came riding by,
O, poor old man.

Says I, “Old man, your horse will die.
“And if he dies we’ll tan his hide.
And if he don’t, I’ll ride him again.
And I’ll ride him ‘til the Lord knows”
He’s dead as a nail in the lamp room door (1), And he won’t come worrying us no more
We’ll use the hair of his tail to sew our sails
and the iron of his shoes (2) to make deck nails,
Drop him down with a long long rope
Where the sharks have his body
And the devil takes his soul (3)!

NOTE
1)Charles Dickens in “A Christama Carol”:  “that Marley was as dead as a door-nail”. The expression is very ancient used both by Shakespeare and even before in the Middle Ages c. 1350. Will. Palerne: For but ich haue bot of mi bale I am ded as dorenail
But William and Mary Morris, in The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, quote a correspondent who points out that it could come from a standard term in carpentry. If you hammer a nail through a piece of timber and then flatten the end over on the inside so it can’t be removed again (a technique called clinching), the nail is said to be dead, because you can’t use it again. Doornails would very probably have been subjected to this treatment to give extra strength in the years before screws were available. So they were dead because they’d been clinched.” One of our traditional ceremonial sea songs, “Dead Horse Shanty,” uses the line “dead as a nail on the lamproom door.” We might assume that these nail heads were appropriately flattened. For those who are now curious to know what a “dead horse” had to do with sailors, it was a symbol of the advance pay they or their crimp received before boarding ship. So they didn’t earn any additional pay until they had worked off the “dead horse.” (from here). 
In the old-time navy, you get the combination of a wooden ship and gunpowder – potentially troublesome. Especially as the gunpowder was stored down below decks where there were no windows to let in the light. Taking a lit torch or candle into the gunpowder store was frowned upon, often briefly and from a great height. The lamp-room was next to the gunpowder store, with a glass window to throw light on the powder without risk of ignition. Nails in the woodwork were also a source of risk, because if struck they could create a spark. Nails in the lamp-room door and around the powder store were ‘deadened’ by being painted over with pitch to protect from this eventuality. With people ashore living in wooden houses with thatched roofs, the practice of ‘deadening’ door nails with pitch or something similar was probably more widespread“,
2) the hooves
3) or
We’ll hoist him up to the main yardarm
We’ll drop him down to the depths of the sea

We’ll sing him down with a long, long roll
Where the sharks’ll have his body
and the devil have have his soul

Robin Holcomb Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys, ANTI 2006

I
Poor old man came ridin’ along
And we say so,
And we hope so.
Poor old man came ridin’ along
Poor old man.
II
Well poor old man your horse he must die
And we say so,
And we hope so.
Poor old man your horse he must die
Poor old man.
III
Well 30 days have come and gone (1)
And we say so,
And we hope so.
30 days have come and gone
Poor old man.

IV
And now we are on a good month’s pay
And we say so,
And we hope so.
I think I hear our wharfing man say
Poor old man.
V
So give them grog for the 30th day
And we say so,
And we hope so.
Give them their grog for the 30th day
Poor old man.
VI
Then up hail ox (2) to the old main yard arm
And we say so,
And we hope so.
Then cut him drip and do him no harm
Poor old man.
A poor old man came ridin’ along

NOTE
1) in this version the ceremony obviously takes place after the first month of navigation
2) it was the simulacrum of the horse to be hoisted on the highest yard and then thrown into the sea, so why an ox?

Ian Campbell – Farewell Nancy 1964


I say, “Old man, your horse is dead.”
And we say so, And we know so.
I say, “Old man, your horse is dead.”
O, poor old man.
One month a rotten live we’ve led
While you lay on y’er feather bed
But now the month is up, ol’ turk
get up, ye swine, and look for work
get up, ye swine, and look for graft
while we lays on an’ yanks(1) ye aft
An’ yanks ye aft t’ th’ cabin door
and hopes we’ll never see ye more

NOTE
1) to yank: pull, or move with a sudden movement

JOHN SHORT VERSION: DEAD HORSE

Keith Kendrick – Short Sharp Shanties : Sea songs of a Watchet sailor vol 3 


A poor old man came riding by.
And we say so,
And we know so.

O, a poor old man came riding by,
O, poor old man.

Says I, “Old man, your horse will die
Says I, “Old man, your horse will die.
And if he dies I’ll tan his hide
(if he leaves my old sail a ride?)
As I was rambling down the street
flesh young girl I chanced for to meet
say I “Young girl (whan’t you send a treat?)
Yes you’ve come to the bottom of the street
Aloft we went in a low back car
she took me to jack store’s bar
She pull him for some cakes and wine
to plumb well as my desire
I plumbed the well and the fancy was gone
but now I left her on the strand

FONTI
http://www.jsward.com/shanty/dead_horse/bone.htm
l
http://crydee.sai.msu.su/public/lyrics/cs-uwp/folk/d/dead_horse
http://mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=108766
http://www.shanty.org.uk/archive_songs/poor-old-horse.html