Blow the Man Down
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Blow the Man Down is an English sea shanty. The lyric "Blow the man down" may refer to the act of knocking a man to the ground. More likely, it refers to a common mishap at sea during the age of sail wherein a strong, sudden gale catches a ship with its topsails fully set – the force of the wind, depending upon the load and balance of the ship's cargo, can actually "blow the man down", or blow the man-o'-war down into the water, partially capsizing it. When this occurs during a violent storm, the result is almost always a loss of the ship, however there are techniques for righting the vessel in relatively calm positions (cutting free the sails and rigging dragging in the water).
Contemporary publications and the memories of individuals, in later publications, put the existence of this shanty by the 1860s. The Syracuse Daily Courier, July 1867, quoted a lyric from the song, which was said to be used for hauling halyards on a steamship bound from New York to Glasgow. In 1879, George Haswell was passenger aboard another steamship, from London to Sydney, at which time he noted some of the shanties of the crew. These were published in the ship's own fortnightly newspaper, The Parramatta Sun, and they included a full set of lyrics for "Blow the Man Down." The lyrics take up the theme of a ship of the Black Ball Line, and include the refrains, "Wae! Hae! Blow the man down / Give me some time to blow the man down." Although Haswell's article did not receive wide circulation, it did find its way into the hands of Laura Alexandrine Smith, whose own large collection of sailors' songs, The Music of the Waters (1888), was one of the first to be widely available. Smith reprinted the lyrics gathered by Haswell. She also presented a different version of the song that she herself presumably collected, and which was said to be used for hoisting topsail yards. Its lyrics include reference to a sailor coming home to England from Hong Kong, as well as meeting a girl on "Winchester Street."
Like most chanties of this type, "Blow the Man Down" was sung to a flexible combination of customary verses, floating verses from within the general chanty repertoire, and verses improvised in the moment or peculiar to individual singers. The song was of indefinite length, and created by supplying solo verses to an invariable two-part refrain. The structure is as follows:
[Soloist's verse, first half]
Refrain: "Way hey blow the man down" [or "To me, weigh, hey, blow the man down"]
[Soloist's verse, second half]
Refrain: "Give me some time to blow the man down!"
Solo verse couplets documented to have been sung to "Blow the Man Down" include the following from sailors of the 19th century.
As I was a walking down Paradise Street
A pretty young damsel I chanced for to meet.
She was round in the counter and bluff in the bow,
So I took in all sail and cried, "Way enough now."
I hailed her in English, she answered me clear,
"I'm from the Black Arrow bound to the Shakespeare."
So I tailed her my flipper and took her in tow
And yardarm to yardarm away we did go.
But as we were going she said unto me
There's a spanking full-rigger just ready for sea.
That spanking full-rigger to New York was bound;
She was very well manned and very well found.
And as soon as that packet was out on the sea,
`Twas devilish hard treatment of every degree.
But as soon as that packet was clear of the bar
The mate knocked me down with the end of a spar.
It's starboard and larboard on deck you will sprawl
For Kicking Jack Williams commands the Black Ball.
So I give you fair warning before we belay,
Don't ever take heed of what pretty girls say.
A bonnie good mate and a captain too,
A bonnie good ship and a bonnie good crew,
Blow the man down, bullies, blow the man down;
Blow the man down, bullies, pull him around.
Blow the man down, you darlings, lie down,
Blow the man down for fair London town.
When the Black Baller is ready for sea,
That is the time that you see such a spree.
There's tinkers, and tailors, and soldiers, and all,
They all ship for sailors on board the Black Ball.
When the Black Baller hauls out of the dock,
To see these poor fellows, how on board they flock.
When the Black Baller gets clear of the land,
'Tis then you will hear the great word of command.
'Lay aft here, ye lubbers, lay aft, one and all,
I'll none of your dodges on board the Black Ball'.
To see these poor devils, how they will all 'scoat,'
Assisted along by the toe of a boot.
It's now we are sailing on th' ocean so wide,
Where the deep and blue waters dash by our black side.
It's now when we enter the channel so wide,
All hands are ordered to scrub the ship's side.
And now, my fine boys, we are round the rock,
And soon, oh! soon, we will be in the dock.
Then all our hands will bundle ashore,
Perhaps some will never to sea go more.
References in the lyrics
Paradise Street is a street in Liverpool, England, that was frequented by sailors whose ships had docked at the port. A traditional explanation of its origins is that the Black Ballers were fast packet ships of the American Black Ball Line that sailed between New York and Liverpool towards the end of the 19th century.
Sailors reached America about four weeks after leaving Liverpool and returned about three weeks later. The speedy journey meant that sailors were paid earlier than those on other lines, making the Black Ball ships very popular.
Sailors were regularly beaten on these ships and being "blown down" meant getting knocked onto the deck floor as a result.
It is unlikely that "Blow the Man Down" was peculiar to the port of Liverpool or the transatlantic trade. For example, versions from Tyneside sing of Chichester Street (in South Shields) or Collingwood Street (in Newcastle upon Tyne), both of which are thoroughfares that would be familiar to sailors from England's North-East coast. "Blown down" seems an unlikely reference in the context to being knocked to the deck for a perceived misdemeanour. Since the working members of the crew are using the phrase, it is more likely to refer to some heavy operation, such as raising a yard. This also fits in with the alternative wording "give me the strength" rather than "give me the time" to blow the (not "a") man down.
An article by Felix Riesenberg, who trained and served as an officer in the Merchant Marine in the 1890s, depicts earlier sailors singing these plainer work lyrics not specifically about the Black Ball line. The men are raising the topsail on a merchant ship to get under sail from New York to Liverpool, with the chantey led by a sailor named Jimmie:
Jimmie—Now rouse her right up boys for Liverpool town.
Sailors—Go way, way, blow the man down.
Jimmie—We'll blow the man up and blow the man down.
Sailors—Oh, give us some time to blow the man down.
Jimmie—We lay off the island of Maderdegascar.
Sailors—Hi, ho, blow the man down.
Jimmie—We lowered two anchors to make her hold faster
Sailors—Oh, give us some time to blow the man down.
Then we'll blow the man up.
And we'll blow the man down.
Go way, way, blow the man down.
We'll blow him right over to Liverpool town.
Oh give us some time to blow the man down.
Ho stand by your braces, and stand by your falls;
Hi, ho, blow the man down,
We'll blow him clean over to Liverpool town,
Oh give us some time to blow the man down.
In popular media
The song is sung separately by Torin Thatcher and a dubbed Sidney Poitier in the 1957 movie Band of Angels.
Tønsberg Sjømannsforenings shantykor (The Shanty Choir of the Tonsberg Sailors' Association) recorded it in Oslo on April 14, 1965. It was released on the extended play Shanties (HMV 7EGN 53). The song features in a 1982 animated advert for Shell UK that depicts the Brent oilfield. The song was sung by the crew (with modified lyrics) aboard the Navy vessel as Marty Pascal (Rob Schneider) was forced to walk the plank after an attempted mutiny in the 1996 comedy Down Periscope starring Kelsey Grammer and Lauren Holly.
In the episode "The Work Song Nanocluster" of the sitcom The Big Bang Theory, Penny and Sheldon use the tune from "Blow the Man Down" with different lyrics as a work song to speed up the manufacturing process in their new home business.
In the 2004 remake of Sid meier's Pirates!, after a successful plunder, the player's crew may break into song. One of the tunes they hum is "Blow the Man Down", though they only sing the melody.
The song was included in the Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean: Swashbuckling Sea Songs. Instead of the "For Kicking Jack Williams commands the Black Ball" line it is sung "For Captain Jack Sparrow commands the Black Pearl" to make the song fit the album's theme better.
Bill Murray's character sings a chorus from the shanty after his first successful sailing endeavor in the film What About BOB.
The SpongeBob SquarePants theme song was inspired by the melody from "Blow the Man Down." "Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? Sponge Bob Square Pants!...". Mr. Krabs also sings the melody to the tune while transitioning in several episodes, including, "Wet Painters". Also in the season one episode "I Was a Teenage Gary", Gary The Snail and SpongeBob SquarePants and Squidward Tentacles as snails sing the melody in meows.
- “Chalk and Charcoal – Outlines of a Trip to Europe!” Syracuse Daily Courier (25 July 1867).
- Seal, Graham. 1992. “Ten Shanties Sung on the Australian Run 1879.” Antipodes Press.
- Smith, Laura Alexandrine, The Music of the Waters, Kegan, Paul, Trench & Co. (1888).
- http://hicketypip.tripod.com/Songbook/blowthe.htm, 65th Regiment Song Book, Retrieved Sept. 21, 2012.
- Riesenberg, F. "When sailors were sailors" (first installment), Outing vol. 62 (1913) pp. 515–527
- "Choules, Claude (Oral history)". Imperial War Museums.
- "The Science Of Song: 13 Key Musical Moments From The Big Bang Theory". CBS.com.