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A fierce song for halyard: Bully in the Alley

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Bully in the Alley
Bully in the Alley

“Bully in the Alley” is a halyard shanty with probable African-American origins referable to the black slaves involved in loading and unloading cotton bales in the ports (cotton screwing).
The bully here has been commonly understood as a boozing sailor left in an alley by his still “sober” companions, who will move on to pick him up when returning to the ship.
But we mustn’t forget that originally “bully” meant a nice guy, a good guy. The original positive meaning was completely overturned in the following century to become synonymous with “bad guy” always ready to fight.

According to Stan Hugill’s personal opinion “Bully in the Alley” – however, disclosed as an anecdotal story – is a seafaring expression to indicate a “stubborn” ship that wants to go in its direction in spite of the helmsman’s intention or an undisciplined ship which moves with an approximate course because guided by a drunken helmsman (and if it wasn’t before it became so after Hugill’s explanation).

Bully in the Alley

Roud 8287 ; Ballad Index Hug522 ; trad.]

Hulton Clint
Seán Dagher (a shanty lesson)
Assassin’s creed IV black flag
Three Pruned Men from Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys  ANTI 2006.
Paddy and the Rats

Shanties from the Seven Seas(p382),
Shanties from the Seven Seas (complete)(p523)

It is now established that many songs of the black stevedores are at the origin of many sea shanty. The discussion on this song is still open: from the research of Hulton Clint among the songs of African-American workers in the white plantations (and in the minstrel song – Thomas “Daddy” Rice, 1833) Shinbone Alley and Sally are connected to similar verses before of the diffusion of sea-shanty.
On the other hand we have an eighteenth-century English ballad entitled Sally in our Alley

Andrew Helbig Sally In Our Alley

This song is nowadays among the most popular “pirate songs”!
Take a look to these bully boys!

Help me, Bob(1),
I’m bully (2)in the alley,
Way, hey, bully in the alley!
Help me, Bob, I’m bully in the alley,
Bully down in “shinbone al
” (3)!
Sally(4) is the girl that I love dearly,
Way, hey, bully in the alley!
Sally is the girl that I spliced dearly(5),
Bully down in “shinbone al
For seven long years I courted little Sally,
But all she did was dilly and dally(6).
I ever get back, I’ll marry little Sally,
Have six kids and live in Shin-bone Alley.

Alternative lines Morrigan
I’ll leave Sal and I’ll become a sailor,
I’ll leave Sal and ship aboard a whaler

Alternative lines Three Pruned Men
Sally got down and dirty last night,
Sally got down and she spliced,
The sailors left last night,
The sailors got a ball of wax.

Another version

Sally am de gal way down our alley way hay
Sally am de gal that I spliced nearly bully down
I left my Sal to go a-sailing way
I left my Sal to go a-whaling [wailing]! bully
I found meslf down on the quay-o way
Found meself with time so free-o Bully
Waltzed up to the angel inn-o way
Kicked the door I waltzed right in -o
Waltzed up to the baroom counter
there I met with greasey Annie
Greasey Annie is a slimey whore-o
Every shellback’s knocked on her door -o
I bought her gin I bought he rum -o
Bought her wine both red and white -o
When I’ld spent all my tin -o
Offto bed we then did creep-o
All night long we tossed and tumbled
Dawn did come and cocks! did crow-o

1)  God
2) bully has a positive value as its original meaning; bully = good guy, a “first rate” sailor. And yet today we tend to translate bully as someone ready to throw punches (if they make him lose his temper or if he’s drunk). “Bully” comes from the Dutch “Boel” meaning “brother or lover” originally meaning “a sweetie”, but the meaning has deteriorated from admiring “good guy” to “swaggering” and finally to “pimp” (the name reserved for the protectors of prostitutes, notoriously abusive and violent).
Stan Hugill also suggests a further interpretative hypothesis: the sailor is so drunk that he can no longer sail to his ship without skidding here and there. Tom Lewis thus explains the verse A more or less imaginative interpretative hypothesis good for entertaining the public in a concert
(3) Shinbone Alley is an alley in New York but also in St George (Bermuda). Metaphorically speaking it is found in every “sailor town”. More generally it is an exotic indication for the Caribbean, the alley of a legendary “pirates den” , where every occasion is good for a fist fight! Or it is the alley of an equally generic port city of the continent full of pubs and cheerful ladies, where if you get drunk, you end up waking up “enlisted” on a man-of-war or a merchant ship.
4) Sally (or Sal) is the generic name of the girls of the Caribbean seas and of South America
5) also written as “Spliced nearly” means “almost married”, and yet the meaning lends itself to sexual allusions. In slang to splice it means having sex (uniting parts of the body in sexual activity)
6) to wastetime, especially by being slow, or by not being able to make a decision

Short Sharp version

The second source comes from sailor John Short via Cecil Sharp’s publication. The fragments of Short’s text are more reminiscent of Sally in Our Alley, Henry Carey’s composition published in 1726, which became very popular in the United States in the nineteenth century. The curators of the project write: “It feels as though this version is far closer to a cotton-screwing chant than the Hugill version. (Carpenter makes a note beside the version from Edward Robinson that it also was for ‘cotton screwing’).  There is only one complete verse and a couple of phrases from Short to Sharp, so the additional words are from Hugill’s version but ignoring location aspects and reworked to fit Short’s significantly different structure

John Short

So help me, Bob ,
I’m bully in the alley,
Way, hey, bully in the alley!
Bully down in an alley
So help me, Bob, 
I’m bully in the alley,
Way, hey, bully in the alley!
(solo) Bully in Teapot alley
Way, hey, bully in the alley!
Sally is the girl down in our alley,
Way, hey, bully in the alley!
Sally is the girl down in our alley,
Way, hey, bully in the alley!
Have you seen on Sally?

(solo) I could love her cheerly
Way, hey, bully in the alley!
Sally is the girl that I love dearly
Sally is the girl that I love dearly
She is the girl in the alley
Oh I’ll spliced to nearly
Way, hey, bully in the alley
I’ll leave my Sally go a sailin’
I’ll leave my Sally go a wailin’
One day I’ll wed Sally
Wedding bed my Sally
Way, hey, bully in the alley


Pubblicato da Cattia Salto

Amministratore e folklorista di Terre Celtiche Blog. Ha iniziato a divulgare i suoi studi e ricerche sulla musica, le danze e le tradizioni d'Europa nel web, dapprima in maniera sporadica e poi sempre più sistematicamente sul finire del anni 90 tramite il sito dell'associazione L'ontano []

2 Risposte a “A fierce song for halyard: Bully in the Alley”

  1. If you listen to all the mannerisms of the lyrics, it’s clearly been written by working class British sailors. The bloke in question is back on leave and tried in on with Sally and she turned him down so he went on a epic bender and had some fun with the local prossie of the alley. At least greasy Annie knew how to have a good time!

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