The Sailor's Hornpipe

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The Sailor's Hornpipe (also known as The College Hornpipe and Jack's the Lad[1]) is a traditional hornpipe melody.


The usual tune for this dance was first printed as the "College Hornpipe" in 1797 or 1798 by J. Dale of London.[2] It was found in manuscript collections before then – for instance the fine syncopated version in the William Vickers manuscript, written on Tyneside, dated 1770.[3] The dance imitates the life of a sailor and their duties aboard ship. Due to the small space that the dance required, and no need for a partner, the dance was popular on-board ship.[4]

Accompaniment may have been the music of a tin whistle or, from the 19th century, a squeezebox. Samuel Pepys referred to it in his diary as "The Jig of the Ship" and Captain Cook, who took a piper on at least one voyage, is noted to have ordered his men to dance the hornpipe in order to keep them in good health.[4] The dance on-ship became less common when fiddlers ceased to be included in ships' crew members.[5]

The Sailor's Hornpipe

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In dramatic stage productions, from around the sixteenth century, a popular feature was a sea dance.[5] But the nineteenth century saw the more familiar form of the "sailors’ hornpipe" introduced.[5] Nautical duties (for example the hauling of ropes, rowing, climbing the rigging and saluting) provided the dance movements.[5]

In artistic and popular culture[edit]

Young Stephen Dedalus dances to "the sailor's hornpipe" played on the piano on the first page of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

About 20 minute into his 1915 film Shanghaied, Charlie Chaplin dances the "Hornpipe".

During the Last Night of the Proms in London, the spectators bring miniature foghorns and party horns and blow them along to the music, creating a loud, frenetic finale as the music reaches its fastest speed.[6]

Groucho doing the "Hornpipe" in Duck Soup

The tune is one of the movements in Sir Henry Wood's Fantasia on British Sea Songs.

John Philip Sousa included the number as part of his "Jack Tar March".

American composer Charles Ives quotes the tune in the "Washington's Birthday" movement in his A Symphony: New England Holidays.

Groucho Marx does the traditional dance to this number at one point, as part of the opening number in the film, Duck Soup.

Donald Duck dances to the melody during his debut appearance in The Wise Little Hen (1934).

In the 1941 children's novel The Moffats by Eleanor Estes, Joey Moffat is supposed to do the hornpipe in a dancing school recital. Overcome by stage fright, he can't remember the steps until a tiny lap dog – formerly a sailor's pet – hears the music and jumps into the center of the floor to take up the dance.

Jenny Linsky, the feline protagonist of Esther Averill's children's books about Jenny and the Cat Club, learns the Sailor's Hornpipe from her owner Captain Tinker. She does the dance and teaches it to other cats throughout the series.

The piece's opening melody is quoted in the Gilligan's Island theme song, "The Ballad of Gilligan's Island."

The tune was played in the animated Popeye cartoons beginning in the 1930s, usually as the first part of the opening credits theme, which then segued into an instrumental of "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man".

The tune was played under the opening credits of the 1947 WB cartoon Buccaneer Bunny. The tune was played on the track and the dance was performed by Sylvester the cat in the 1948 WB cartoon Back Alley Op-Roar.

The song provides the melody for a song sung by the Dodo during the Caucus Race sequence in the 1951 film version of Alice in Wonderland.

The tune framed the final track ("Symphony of the Seas") of the 1980s album, Hooked on Classics, Volume 3.

Sylvester doing the "Hornpipe" in Back Alley Oproar

The Sailor's Hornpipe is the finale of part two of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells. It was also the inspiration for the track "Moonshine" from his Tubular Bells II.

In the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera H.M.S. Pinafore, Sir Joseph Porter tells Ralph Rackstraw "All sailors should dance hornpipes. I will teach you one this evening". In their later opera, Utopia, Limited, a slower version of the melody introduces "Captain Corcoran, K.C.B." In their opera The Gondoliers, it's quoted in the accompaniment for the line "With Admirals all round his wide dominions" from the song "There lived a King." An entire dance routine of a Hornpipe is included in Ruddigore

George Malcolm, 20th century English harpsichordist and conductor, wrote a harpsichord piece called "Bach before the Mast", a humorous set of variations on The Sailor's Hornpipe in the style of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Along with George Malcolm's piece, Keith Emerson plays his own version of the tune on his solo album Honky – "a full-fledged rocking strut with a Caribbean twist" (Allmusic).

In the television show Futurama, the jingle for Popplers is set to the tune of The Sailor's Hornpipe (Season 2 Episode 15: The Problem with Popplers).

This song plays during part of the ending in the Xbox Live Arcade game Castle Crashers.

Noel Rawsthorne wrote a set of variations on the tune, "Hornpipe Humoresque", with apologies to Bach (a variation conflating the tune with the first movement of Brandenburg Concerto No. 3), Vivaldi (the first movement of "Spring" from The Four Seasons), Arne (Rule Britannia), and Widor (Toccata from Organ Symphony No. 5).

A whistled version of the melody is used by UK group Madness on their 1985 hit "Uncle Sam".

A segment of the melody is sung by Roger Jackson as the character Reginald Van Winslow in the first chapter of the Tales of Monkey Island video game, released in 2009.

The tune also features in the film The Warrior's Way during a fight scene.

In "Ride the Roller Coaster" the Kidsongs Kids who are dressed up as pirates sing this song and rename it "A Pirate's Life is a Life for Me".

In The Simpsons episode Bart The Fink, Handsome Pete dances to this tune for nickels when Bart and Lisa are looking for Krusty.

In Theodore Tugboat is the beginning and ending theme song The Sailor's Hornpipe.

In Spongebob Squarepants is the Krusty Krab from this music "The Rake Hornpipe."

In The Wiggles is favorite song "Henry the Octopus" sing and dance together.


This tune has been recorded by: