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The Old Moke Picking on a Banjo

[ Roud 930 ; Ballad Index Be022 ; VWML CJS2/10/2960 ; trad.]

Danny Spooner sang The Old Moke Picking on a Banjo in 2009 on his album Bold Reilly Gone Away. He noted:

The Old Moke Picking on a Banjo probably originates from Negro and Irish navvies working in the railway gangs in America. How it got to sea is anyone’s guess. This version is for the capstans either raising the anchor or warping a ship out through the docks to the open sea.

Jeff Warner sang He Back, She Back (Old Moke Picking on a Banjo) in 2011 on his WildGoose CD Long Time Travelling and in 2012 on the WildGoose anthology of songs collected from Watchet sailor John Short by Cecil Sharp, Short Sharp Shanties Vol. 3. The latter’s notes commented:

One of the two shanties (the other being Paddy Works on the Railway) which seem to be close relations to the American shore song Pat Do This, the chorus of which goes:

Sugar, sugar, roo, sugar, sugar, roo,
Sugar in the cream-jug, how do yer do?
Working on the railroad, fol-a-rol-a-ray,
Johnny come picking on a banjer.

There is a further possible root in the Song of the Pinewoods, where the “singer lands in America in 1844 and works in the pinewoods. An Irish girl offers him whiskey and looks him over. He describes the teamsters with whom he works. The song may have many floating verses and a nonsense chorus.” There is obviously a complex of related texts, locations, tunes and floating verses which it is impossible to tease out and give sequence to.

Hugill comments that Sharp is the only publisher, other than himself, who gives this shanty. The versions are not dissimilar. Short gave only one verse and chorus—the remainder comes from Hugill and, in his opinion, the song was “originated by the Negro and Irish work-gangs who laboured on the Iron Road. Some of these songs eventually arrived at sea and [this] was certainly one of them.” Short’s first line is an absolute delight—and a statement about accuracy, rather than the more usual, and less graphic, “shot him in the stern and never turned a hair.” Sharp’s notes to Short’s published version state: “The tune, which is in the dorian mode, is, as Miss Gilchrist has pointed out to me, a variant of Shule Agra… Both words and tune show negro influence.” Short gave Sharp only the first verse, so it’s back to Stan Hugill for the remainder of this set.

The word ‘moke’ is, according to several dictionaries, an English 19th century word which they cite as being of unknown origin—but meaning donkey. Friends who use the Romany language claim it as a Romany word for donkey. In Australia it came to mean a poor quality horse. In America it also came to be applied to black slaves—rather betraying the way in which they were viewed at the time. This application was also Sharp’s understanding, from Short, as recorded in his field notebook. However, life is never that simple and those who are familiar with sheet music and line-drawing adverts for black minstrel troupes will be familiar with drawings of the troupe sitting in an arc on stage with an actual donkey playing banjo at the end of the line!


Danny Spooner sings The Old Moke Picking on a Banjo

He bang, she bang, daddy shot a bear,
Shot him in the arse my boys and never turned a hair.

Chorus (after each verse):
We’re all from the railroad too-ra-loo
And the Old Moke’s pickin’ on the banjo.
Hooraw! What the Hell’s the row,
We’re all from the railroad too-ra-loo,
We’re all from the railroad too-ra-loo
And the Old Moke’s pickin’ on the banjo.

Pat get back, take in yer slack, heave away my boys,
Heave away my bully boys, why don’t yer make some noise.

Rock her boys, roll her boys, give her flamin’ gyp,
Git the anchor out the mud and let the bastard rip.

Whiskey Oh! Johnny Oh! The mud hook is in sight,
’Tis a hell of a way to the gals that wait and the old Nantucket Light.

Out chocks, two blocks, heave the capstan round,
Fish that flamin’ anchor up for we are outward bound.

Rock her boys, roll her boys, git that mains’l tout,
Watch her dip her scroll my boys as we roll out of port.

Fare-thee well you tow-rope girls we’ll see you in a while,
If you give us an inch my gal, well we will take a mile.

The anchor it is catted home and we are bound away,
Bound away across the seas where all them fishes play.