Barrett's Privateers

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"Barrett's Privateers"
Song by Stan Rogers
from the album Fogarty's Cove
Released1976 (1976)
RecordedSeptember 23–24, 1976
GenreSea shanty, folk song
LabelBarn Swallow
Songwriter(s)Stan Rogers
Producer(s)Paul Mills

"Barrett's Privateers" is a modern folk song in the style of a sea shanty, written and performed by Canadian musician Stan Rogers, having been inspired after a song session with the Friends of Fiddler's Green at the Northern Lights Festival Boréal in Sudbury, Ontario.[1] Although Barrett, the Antelope and other specific instances mentioned in the song are fictional, "Barrett's Privateers" is full of many authentic details of privateering in the late 18th century.

The song was released on the album Fogarty's Cove in 1976 and has since gained popularity as a drinking song, with cover versions by many bands. It also appears on later Stan Rogers live albums Home in Halifax and Between the Breaks ... Live! The song makes use of mixed meter, regularly switching back and forth from 2
to 3
time. It is regarded as one of the Royal Canadian Navy's unofficial anthems, the unofficial anthem of Atlantic Canada and also often heard sung at many Atlantic universities including (west to east) Acadia University, University of New Brunswick, Dalhousie University, Saint Mary's University, University of King's College, St. Francis Xavier University, Cape Breton University, and Memorial University of Newfoundland.


"Barrett's Privateers" is sung from the point of view of a young fisherman who enlisted on Elcid Barrett's ill-fated Antelope. The Antelope is described as the "scummiest vessel [he'd] ever seen", and the song describes the many faults of the decrepit sloop.[2]

After describing the initial voyage to Jamaica seeking American merchantmen and the problems with the Antelope, the unnamed narrator sings about how they finally found one, loaded down with gold. Because of the poor state of the ship, it takes the Antelope two days to come within firing distance of the American vessel, which ultimately turns out to be far more heavily armed then they are. The Antelope's main-mast is knocked down with one volley from the American vessel, and Barrett is killed. The truck of the mainmast "carrie[s] off both [the narrator's] legs" leaving him a broken man.

The last two stanzas find him "in (his) twenty-third year", having taken six years to make his way to Halifax.

Historical authenticity[edit]

From the very opening line of the song, Rogers paints a plausible and mostly authentic image of a privateering vessel. He sets the tale in 1778, at the height of the American Revolution, when privateering was a common activity on both sides of the war. Rogers' choice of names, nautical terminology, and details of weapons and places all accurately reflect historical fact, with some exaggeration on the loss of life. The song's mentions of Halifax, Nova Scotia, are also historically accurate, as Halifax was a well-known port for privateers operating on the east coast and out of Nova Scotia at that time.

The meaning and accuracy of some parts are open to discussion. The refrain of "I wish I was in Sherbrooke now" is one example. If he is referring to a town, then there is a conflict with the date of 1778, as the town of Sherbrooke, Nova Scotia was not founded until 1815, and Sherbrooke, Quebec not until 1818 (in any case, John Coape Sherbrooke, the namesake of both towns, was only 14 years old in 1778).[3] Another possibility is that this reflects Stan Rogers' artistic license in tribute to his family origins near Sherbrooke, on Nova Scotia's eastern Shore. Others believe the line refers to the privateer brig Sir John Sherbrooke, one of the largest and most formidable privateers based in Nova Scotia. However, like the town of Sherbrooke, the Sir John Sherbrooke significantly post-dates the American Revolution, having been built in 1813.[4] Perhaps he was referring to the community of New Ross, which was originally Sherbrooke but renamed after the War of 1812, rather than Sherbrooke village. These are actually two different locations: Sherbrooke village "nestled between Sherbrooke Lake and St. Mary's River" and the other (New Ross formerly Sherbrooke) located in the Chester Municipal District.

The song exaggerates the violence of privateering, since the nature of privateer warfare precluded bloody battles, as the aim was to capture an undamaged merchant ship. No privateer from Nova Scotia ever sank in or suffered such bloody losses from battle, although some (such as the privateer Rolla) were lost with all hands in shipwrecks.[5] American privateers, however, did meet with disastrous fates off Nova Scotia at the hands of the Royal Navy (e.g., see the story of Young Teazer, as well as the naval battle off Halifax).

The Antelope[edit]

"The Antelope" is described as a sloop in the song, with a total of 21 crew, all of whom were formerly fishermen. She is armed with several "cracked" four-pounder cannons. The Antelope has many other faults: she lists to port, and constant pumping is needed to keep ahead of the many leaks in the poorly maintained wooden hull. The Antelope's sails are described as being "in rags", likely the result of poor upkeep.

Many vessels of the period bore the name "Antelope", including several in the British Royal Navy named HMS Antelope. As the name of a somewhat exotic animal, it conveyed a sense of the vessel's speed, although in this case it is an ironic moniker.

Sloops were often used by privateers because they were good for short-range assaults. Their range was extremely limited by their small size, although even a small sloop normally warranted a crew of at least thirty, so that there might be enough men to crew a captured prize. Given the Antelope's state of repair, the smaller crew could be taken to mean that it was difficult to recruit for such an obviously unreliable vessel.

The precise afflictions of the Antelope – listing to port, ragged sails, constant leaks, and an evidently incompetent crew – are all likely problems. Many ships either damaged in storms or barely seaworthy to begin with had constant rotations of crewmen pumping out water. While stored, sails could be damaged by rats or insects. Without good maintenance, they might also become eroded in the normal course of use. The cook is described as having the "staggers and jags", a euphemism for delirium tremens resulting from alcoholism; this was an all too common condition for sailors. Additionally, the listing to port could also have been caused by poor ballasting by the crew.

The Antelope is armed with cracked "four-pounders", quite common privateer weapons. As smaller weapons, they allowed the privateer great speed, although it also meant that they lacked range. Given the poor armament of most merchantmen, a skilled captain could use them very effectively. While some debate has been raised over the fact that cracked cannons would be difficult to fire, resulting in a claim that Rogers' original was "crack four-pounders" using the slang of "crack" meaning "the best", recordings of Rogers show him singing "cracked".[6] Furthermore, it is more in keeping with the description of the Antelope for the cannons to be in disrepair rather than exceptionally good.

The assumed authenticity is often so great that other performers have either been confused by it or played off it to fool unsuspecting audiences. In one of their recorded performances of the song, famed Scottish folk singers The Corries state during a preamble that the song is in fact from the 18th century. However they also claim that it is the story of a Scottish exile, changing the line "I wish I was in Sherbrooke now" to "I wish I was in Edinburgh now" even though no such references appear in the lyrics, and that the Antelope's captain was "Cid Barrett" not the correct "Elcid".

In popular culture[edit]

The popularity of "Barrett's Privateers" has inspired cover versions by many bands, such as the metal band Alestorm on their third album, Back Through Time. This cover also features a guitar solo by Heri Joensen from Týr. The Australian band, Weddings Parties Anything and the folk group, Schooner Fare, also covered this song.

Ian Robb wrote a well-known parody of the song, "Garnet's Home-made Beer," which features Stan Rogers' brother Garnet Rogers and a misbegotten batch of homebrew. It appears on Robb's From Different Angels album.

Keith C. McCormic wrote and sung a parody of the song for the Dust 514 song contest called Matars New Valklears.

In the Due South episode "Mountie on the Bounty", Fraser sings "Barrett's Privateers" during dinner on board the Henry Allen. By the last verse, the crew is so caught up in the song that Ray Kowalski is able to slip away to inspect the suspect's cabin.

The Celtic punk band The Real McKenzies cover the tune on their 2012 release Westwinds.

Covered a capella by The Kingston Trio in their 2012 album, Born at the Right Time.

Covered by Blackbeard's Tea Party on their 2011 album Tomorrow We'll Be Sober.

Covered by The Fishermen's Friends (Port Isaac's Fishermen's Friends) on "Home From the Sea" (2002 Album).

Covered by The Corries, year unknown (probably 1970s–1980s) on album named Barrett's Privateers, released in 2006 with other previously not released recordings. In this version, the line "I wish I was in Sherbrooke now" is replaced with "I wish I was in Edinburgh now".[7]

Dinosaur comics provides an emoji version of the refrain.[8]

External links[edit]

lyrics on Stan Rogers' website


  1. ^ "Stan Rogers: 10 Years Gone". Ottawa Citizen, July 11, 1993.
  2. ^ Sloops, single-masted fore-and-aft–rigged vessels, were mainly used by short range privateers in Atlantic Canada and fared poorly in West Indies cruises. Conlin, Dan "Sloop Frances Mary" Canadian Privateer Homepage Archived May 19, 2010, at the Wayback Machine. Some have speculated that Rogers meant a sloop-of-war, a naval vessel smaller than a Frigate, but this was strictly a naval term and not used by privateers.
  3. ^ Sherbrooke Village - Research / History Archived June 26, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ Dan Conlin, "Is the Song Barrett's Privateers True?", Canadian Privateering Homepage
  5. ^ Snider, C.H.J. Under the Red Jack, Musson Books (1926), p. 245
  6. ^ "YouTube". Retrieved February 6, 2019.
  7. ^ "Barrett's Privateers, The Corries Official Website". Retrieved February 6, 2019.
  8. ^ "Dinosaur Comics!". Retrieved February 6, 2019.