Boston Harbor, a colonial sea shanty

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“Boston” o “Boston Harbor” is a forebitter song from the uncertain origin, it may referred to the small port of Boston, Lincolnshire or the larger port in Boston, Massachusetts. Also known as “Big Bow Wow” after a line from the chorus. It comes from Captain Whall’s collection, (Ships, Sea Songs and Shanties ,1910) and was published in Joanna C. Colcord, 1938, “Songs of American Sailormen,”  with music score. Captain W B Whall writes “The origin of the following example is unknown to me. It is evidently the work of a seaman and has, probably, never before appeared in print. I have never met with it. The song goes with a good swing, and was very popular between the years of 1860 and 1870.

Clippership Alert Leaving Boston c. 1835 -Christopher Blossom

Smithsonian Folkways records “Boston Harbor” in the album “Colonial and Revolutionary War Sea Songs and Shanties” which collects the traditional American songs of the sea in the colonial era (1765-1775). Famous the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773, when the American colonists to protest the commercial imposition of the British Empire decide to assault a ship full of tea landed in the port of Boston and throw all the cargo at sea. The Boston Tea Party was a significant event in the growth of the American Revolution
Cliff Halsam & John Millar from Colonial and Revolutionary War Sea Songs and Shanties 1975
The Watersons (I, II, III, V) from “New Voices” (1965)

Joe Hickerson,  Jeff Warner, Gerrett Warner &Tony Saletan from Songs & Sounds of the Sea 1973
The Mimi Crew from Songs of the Sea 1988

The Punters Big Bow Wow from Fisherman’s Blues 2003
(Newfoundland version)

From Boston Harbour (1) we set sail
When it was blowin’ the devil of a gale,
With the ringtail(2) set all avast (abaft) the mizzen peak (3)
And Rule Britannia (4) ploughin’ up the deep.
Chorus (after each verse):
With a big bow-wow(5)!
Tow-row-row (6)!

Fol de rol de ri do day!
Then up come the skipper(captain)
from down below,
It’s “Look aloft, lads, look alow!” (7)
And it’s “Look alow!” and it’s “Look aloft!”
And “Tie (Coil ) up your ropes, lads, fore and aft!”
Then down to his cabin well he quickly crawls (falls),
To his poor old steward (8) bawls,
“Go and mix me a glass that will make me cough (9)
For it’s better weather here than it is on top (up aloft)”

It’s we poor sailors standin’ on the deck,
With the blasted rain pourin’ down our necks;
And not a drop of grog will he to us afford,
And he damns our eyes (10) with every other word.
Now there’s one thing that we have to crave:
That the captain meets with a watery grave.
So we’ll throw him down into some dark hole
Where the sharks ‘ll have his body and the devil have his soul.

1) the Punters say Bay Bulls, there is also the Yarmouth version
2) the phrase wants to underline the captain’s unskillfulness
because the ringtail is set when there is a slight breeze
3) the Punters say “our ba(f)flin  is in peak”,
4) or Dolphin striker or a Yankee ship
5) bow-wow is the barking of the dog, but in the double meanings of the nineteenth-century musichall’s songs it meant the male sexual organ (like pussy for the female one), in the Passing English of the Victorian bow-wow = mutton (so bad that it might be dog-flesh). From a dictionary Slang and its Analogues Past and Present (1909) bow-wow = A Bostonian: in contempt
6) toe row row – typical arrangement line by line, foot by foot, or side by side (from the British Grenadiers)
7)  W.B. Whall:
And he looks aloft and he looks alow,
And he looks alow and he looks aloft,
8) or cabin boy
9) a very strong drink. Punters say “Go and get me a drink that’ll make me cough”
10) “Damn your eyes!” it’s a curse, “damn you”

In hee A Ship of Solace (1911) Elinor Mordaunt publishes a further lines
Now that old fellow he’s both dead and gone,
But he’s left to us his one and only son.
And if he don’t prove both kind and frank,
So help me, Jimmy, we’ll make him walk the plank.


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