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The Dead Horse (Poor Old Man) sea shanty: Working off the Dead Horse

Leggi in italiano


Paying 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.


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)
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!”

An even more sumptuous and articulated description of the ceremony in the Harper’s Weekly The Dead Horse Festival New York, November 11, 1882 (here)
In later versions of the ceremony, however, the ritual becomes more hasty and less cared for, from Frank T. Bullen’s description it follows that the “horse” is just a patched up set of waste material that is simply hoisted and made to fall burning at sea.
The ritual echoes ancient propitiatory and auspicious rituals such as those of the Poor Old Horse at Christmas or Springtime (see more)
The horse is symbolically the offer to the “divinities” of the sea to appease it and guarantee a safe and fruitful journey.


Titles: Dead Horse, Poor old man, Poor old Horse
Use: Halyard e Long drag shanty

For this shanty we have two hypotheses about the origins, according to Stan Hugill there was a song related to the ceremony that took place after a month of sailing to celebrate the end of the work that serves to pay the debts contracted by the sailors before departure. For other folklorists, however, the opposite hypothesis could also be valid. Among these, Hulton Clint argues: “As” Poor Old Man “—the chorus found in nearly all documented versions — it was often a halyard chantey for actual use, in which case the verses would most likely not include the special emphases on the” dead horse. “Notably, Hugill’s version is one of few that gives as a possible chorus,” Poor Old HORSE. “Naturally, that would wrap up the desired picture of the” ceremonial chantey “in a tidy fashion. The original (pre-chantey ) emphasis of the verses were concerned with the poor old ~ man ~. In fact, the core few verses first turn up in minstrel song compositions. ” (from here)

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 (2) the hair of his tail to sew our sails
and the iron of his shoes to make deck nails,
Drop him down with a long long rope (3)
Where the sharks have his body
And the devil takes his soul!

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
2) these stanzas are part of the Hodden Horse and Old Tup ritual with the ritual death of the sacrificial victim and its parts used in various ways by the community
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
Actually the horse was first hoisted on the main yard and then the auction winner would have cut the rope to make it fall into the sea. Hugill reports that« the seaman on the yard cut the gantline to allowe the ʻhorseʼ to ʻdrop into the drinkʼ […] »”

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

A poor old man came ridin’ along And we say so, And we hope so.
Poor old man came ridin’ along oh Poor old man.
(Well) poor old man your horse he must die (X2)
(Well) 30 days have come and gone (1) (x2)
And now we are on a good month’s pay
I think I hear our wharfing (old) (2) man say
So give them grog for the 30th day (x2)
Then up aloft to the main yard arm And we say so, And we hope so
Then cut him adrift (4) and will do him no harm Poor old man.
A poor old man came ridin’ along
1) in this version the ceremony obviously takes place after the first month of navigation
2) Capt. Leighton Robinson always refers to The Old Man
3) it would seem that Robin Holcomb says “Then up hail ox” (Raise the ox) but where the ox came from did not sound clear to me, it was the simulacrum of the horse that was hoisted on the highest yard and then thrown into the sea, in effect the Leighton Robinson’s verse simply says “Up aloft to the main yard arm” and so does Robin
4) yet another inaccuracy not “drip” (then cut it to make it drip) but “adrift”

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


The curators of the project write: “Short’s words for Dead Horse move rapidly into general ‘female encounter’ verses. We have kept the text in that style, and used various verses more usually associated with Dead Horse for Poor Old Man (a.k.a. O Wake Her, O Shake Her / Girl with the Blue Dress / Johnny Come To Hilo) where Short also used Dead Horse verses. Perhaps the shanty was not ‘originally consecrated’ to the ceremony – particularly with different verses – but became so, and with a consolidation of relevant verses, later in its evolution” (from here)

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

And finally we learn to sing the shanty from Brian (the shantyman known as Brian of Holcombe) who in the video is assisted by a parrot (pirate style!)

A poor old man went riding by – And we say so, And we hope so.
say I “old man your horse will die – oh Poor old horse.
One month a rotten live we’ve led
While you’s laid in y’er feather bed
But now your time is up, ol’ turk
get up, ye swine, and look for work
for 30 days your ride on him
But now he’s dead we’ll tine his skin
We’ll yank him up to the cabin door
and he no worrying us no more
Up alof this horse must go
we’ll hung him high and rope him low
We’ll drop him down with a long, long rope
Where the sharks have his body
And the devil have his soul
I thought I heard the old man say – And we say so, And we hope so.
Just one more pull and than belay- oh Poor old horse.

The Albion Band folk country blues version


Pubblicato da Cattia Salto

folklorista delle Terre Celtiche

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