It became de Burgh's first UK hit single almost eight years into his recording career when it entered the chart on 23 October 1982 and peaked at number 48, staying on the chart for 5 weeks. In 1983, the single reached #34 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the United States.
The song tells the story of a man who boards a ferryboat and sets off. A storm approaches and the ferryman demands payment from the patron. The song's narrator warns the passenger not to pay the ferryman until the boat arrives at its destination on the other side.
The repetitive lyrics are believed to have a connection with mythology. The song describes the ferryman as "the hooded old man at the rudder," and seems to connect to the classic image of the Grim Reaper, a hooded being (usually a skeleton) who leads lost souls to "the other side," also a lyric in the song. The ferryman demanding his payment is also similar to the Greek ferryman of the dead, Charon. He demanded an obolus (coin) to ferry dead souls across the River Styx. Those who did not pay were doomed to remain as ghosts, remaining on the plane of the mare, the restless dead. Therefore in former cultures coins were laid below the tongues of dead persons.
In 2006 the movie "The Ferryman" starring John Rhys-Davies utilized the original version of this song for the credits. Also in 2006 the band Domain covered "Don't Pay the Ferryman" on their album Stardawn.