“Blow the man down”, that is to knock a man down or strike with a fist, belaying pin or capstan bar, is a popular sea shanty.
There are a great variety of texts of this halyard shanty, with the same melody, and after the version for the cartoon character “Popeye” it has also become a song for children!
Billy Costello the voice of the first Popeye
According to Stan Hugill “the shanty was an old Negro song Knock A Man Down. This song, a not so musical version of the later Blow The Man Down, was taken and used by the hoosiers of Mobile Bay, and at a later date carried by white seamen of the Packet Ships.”
Knock a man down
The original version probably comes from African-American workers, but ended up in the repertoire of liners along the transatlantic route. In his video Ranzo combines the melody of Stan Hugill with that of John Short: in the first text the shantyman would prefer to be on the ground, to enjoy themselves with drinks and girls.
There are three main themes.
FIRST VERSION: prime seamen onboard a Black Ball
The oldest version is the one in which the novice sailors are soon aware of the harsh and violent climate on the Black Baller.
As Hugill says ” Chief Mates in Western Ocean ships were known as “blowers”, second mates as “strikers”, and third mates as “greasers.”
A Packet ship was one which had a contract to carry packets (formerly “paquettes”) of mail. The earliest and most famous transatlantic packet route was the Liverpool service, started in 1816 by the Black Ball Line, with regular departures from New York on the 1st and 16th of every month without fail, regardless of weather or other inconveniences. These early ships of 300 to 500 tons averaged 23 days for the eastward voyage and 40 days to return westward. Cabin passengers were usually gentlefolk of good breeding, who expected to find courtesy and politeness in the captains with whom they sailed. Packet captains were remarkable men, hearty, bluff, and jovial, but never coarse, always a gentleman.
The mates, on the other hand, had no social duties to distract their attention, and devoted their time and energies to extracting the very maximum of performance from both their vessel and its crew, so it is no surprise that it was on board the Black Ball liners that “belaying pin soup” and “handspike hash” first became familiar items of the shipboard regime. A hard breed of sailor was required to maintain the strict schedules whatever the weather, and it took an even harder breed of mate to keep this rough and ready bunch in some sort of order. If all else failed then then Rule of the Fist applied: to “blow a man down” was to knock him down with any means available – fist, belaying pin, or capstan bar being the weapons most often preferred. (from here)
|“Capstan Bars” di David Bone 1932
oh! Blow the man down, bullies.
Blow the man down W-ay! hey?
Blow the man down!
Blow the man down bullies.
Blow him right down, give us the time and we’ll blow the man down!
Come all ye young fellers that follows the sea.
W-ay! hey? Blow the man down!
I’ll sing ye a song if ye’ll listen t’ me.
Give us the time an’ we’ll blow the man down!
|‘Twas in a Black Baller I first served my time.
and in a Black Baller I wasted my prime.
‘Tis when a Black Baller’s preparin’ for sea.
Th’sights in th’ fo’ cas’le(1) is funny t’ see
Wi’ sodgers (2) an’ tailors an’ dutchmen an’ all,
As ships for prime seamen(3) aboard th’ Black Ball.
But when th’ Black Baller gets o’ th’ land
it’s then as ye’ll hear th’ sharp word o’ command.
oh! it’s muster ye sodgers an’ tailors an’ sich.
an’ hear ye’re name called by a son of a bitch.
it’s “fore-topsail halyards”(4), th’ Mate(5) he will roar.
“oh, lay along smartly you son of a whore”.
oh, lay along smartly each lousy recroot.
Wor it’s lifted ye’ll be wi’ th’ toe of a boot.
1 )the forward part of a ship below the deck, traditionally used as the crew’s living quarters.
2) sodger vvariant of soldier is used as an insult in the sense of ambush, slacker, one who always tries to escape from work, that when there is work, goes away or retires
3) the inexperienced and the novices are good only for the easy maneuvers
4) fore-topsail halyards= In sailing, a halyard or halliard is a line (rope) that is used to hoist a ladder, sail, flag or yard; fore-topsai the sail above the foresail set on the fore-topmast
5) Mate= first officer
Come all ye young fellows that follow the sea
To me weigh hey blow the man down
And pray pay attention and listen to me
Give me some time to blow the man down
I’m a deep water sailor just in from Hong Kong
If you’ll give me some rum I’ll sing you a song-
T’was on a Black Baller I first spent my time
And on that Black Baller I wasted my prime
T’is when a Black Baller’s preparing for sea
You’d split your sides laughing at the sights that you see
With the tinkers and tailors and soldiers and all
That ship for prime seamen onboard a Black Ball
T’is when a Black Baller is clear of the land
Our boatswain then gives us the word of command
“Lay aft” is the cry “to the break of the poop
Or I’ll help you along with the toe of my boot”
T’is larboard and starboard on the deck you will sprawl
For Kicking Jack Williams commands the Black Ball
Aye first it’s a fist and then it’s a pall
When you ship as a sailor aboard the Black Ball
SECOND VERSION: I’m a `Flying Fish’ sailor
The second version tells the story of a “flying-fish sailor” just landed in Liverpool from Hong Kong, swapped by a policeman for a “blackballer”. The sailor reacts by throwing the policeman on the ground with a sting and obviously ends up in jail for a few months.
Stan Hugill& Pusser’s Rum from Sailing Songs (1990)
I’ll sing you a song if you give some gin
To me wey-hey, blow the man down
?? down to the pin
Gimme some time to blow the man down
|As I was rolling down Paradise street(1)
a big irish scuffer boy (2) I chanced for to meet,
Says he, “You’re a Blackballer from the cut of your hair(3);
you’re a Blackballer by the clothes that you wear.
“You’ve sailed in a packet that flies the Black Ball,
You’ve robbed some poor Dutchman of boots, clothes and all.”
“O policeman, policeman, you do me great wrong;
I’m a `Flying Fish’ sailor(4) just home from Hongkong!”
So I stove in his face and I smashed in his jaw.
Says he, “Oh young feller, you’re breaking the law!”
They gave me six months in Liverpool town
For bootin’ and a-kickin’ and a-blowing him down.
We’re a Liverpool ship with a Liverpool crew
A Liverpool mate(5) and a Scouse(6) skipper too
We’re Liverpool born and we’re Liverpool bred
Thick in the arm, boys, and thick in the head
Blow the man down, bullies, blow the man down
With a crew of hard cases(7) from Liverpool town
1) once the fun way for sailors, the 19th century Paradise street left today the place for Liverpool One,
2 sassy policeman or big Irish copper: scuffer is a typical nineteenth-century term for policeman
3) all the Black Baller line sailors wore their hair cut short
4) According to Hugill a flying-fish sailor is a sailor ” who preferred the lands of the East and the warmth of the Trade Winds to the cold and misery of the Western Ocean“
5) first mate
6) scouse is a term used by the people of Liverpool which is also the name given to the local dialect. Originally born from the habits of the sailors of Liverpool to eat the stew of lamb and vegetables probably derived from the Norwegian “skause”. It refers to the English spoken language typical of Irish immigrants
7) hard cases: a tough or intractable person, a person who is hard to get along with.
JOHN SHORT VERSION: Knock a man down
John Short sings a very personal version in the arrangement for the Short Sharp Shanties the authors write ” Fox-Smith, Colcord and Doeflinger all comment on the number of different texts which the shanty carried. Hugill gives six different sets of words and Short’s words are not really related to any of them – so we have added ‘general’ verses from other versions. Specifically, we’ve added the ‘Market Street’, ‘spat in his face’ and ‘rags are all gone’ verses – the rest are Short’s.”
Sam Lee from Short Sharp Shanties : Sea songs of a Watchet sailor vol 2
As I was a-walking down Market street
way ay knock a man down,
a bully old watchman I chanced for to meet
O give me some time to knock a man down.
Knock a man down, kick a man down ;
way ay knock a man down,
knock a man down
right down to the ground,
O give me some time to knock a man down.
|The watchman’s dog stood ten feet high (1),
The watchman’s dog stood ten feet high.
So I spat in his face by gave him good jaw
and says he “me young you’re breaking the law!”
I wish I was in London Town.
It’s there we’d make them girls fly round.
She is a lively ship and a lively crew.
O we are the boys to put her through
The rags are all gone and (?the chains they are jam?)
and the skipper he says (? “If the weather be high”?)
A transcription still incomplete because I can not understand the pronunciation of the final verses
1) it was not unusual that the watchmen since the Middle Ages were accompanied with a dog, as can be seen from many vintage illustrations
Two variants from the Nevis and Carriacou islands so Ranzo writes in the notes: “The variation from Nevis, with its repeated phrase “in the hold below”, suggests the song was once associated with stevedores loading cargo. This is fascinating, because it is consistent with (my reading of the) evidence that “Blow the Man Down” was initially a stevedore song, in which the act of blowing “the man down” was perhaps a metaphor for stowing each piece of cargo. Also, the many variations, “hit,” “knock,” “kick,” “blow” are consistent with other historical data that “knock a man down” was an/the early form. The variation was sung by Roy Gumbs and party of Nevis in 1962. Lomax recorded it, and Abrahams transcribed it in his 1974 book. The second variation is from Carriacou. It refers to a vessel named _Cariso_. It was sung by Daniel Aikens and chorus in 1962.”