> The Albion Band > Songs > Poor Old Horse

Poor Old Horse / Poor Old Man / The Dead Horse

[ Roud 3724 ; Ballad Index Doe014 ; VWML PG/14/1 , CJS2/10/3015 ; trad.]

This page is about the shanty Poor Old Horse. The ceremonial song Poor Old Horse is Roud 513.

Bob Roberts sang the shanty Poor Old Horse in 1960 on his Talking Book album Windy Old Weather.

Ian Campbell sang Poor Old Horse in 1964 on the Topic anthology of sea songs and shanties, Farewell Nancy; it was also included in 2004 on the compilation CD Sailors' Songs & Sea Shanties. A.L. Lloyd noted:

Till recently, at midwinter young men went round English villages with one of the gang disguised as a ram or a horse, which was put to death and resurrected in pantomime. They'd dance, sing and collect beer-money. One of these songs accompanying this ritual was Poor Old Horse. Taken aboard ship it kept its ceremonial purpose. At the end of the first month at sea, when the seamen's wages fell due, a stuffed horse was ritually dumped overboard to the accompaniment of the song. The ceremony fell into disuse but the song lingered on as a shanty. The tune is a variant of Tom's Gone to Hilo.

John Tams sang a much longer version of Poor Old Horse in 1978 on an Albion Band single and on their LP Rise Up Like the Sun. Martin Carthy, Julie Covington, Pat Donaldson, Andy Fairweather-Low, Kate McGarrigle and Richard and Linda Thompson sang backing vocals. The album's sleeve notes said:

John Tams has described this song as an attempt to push the traditional sea shanty towards a country blues style: “The tradition is incredibly strong and forgiving. You don't need to tiptoe around songs in a scholarly way, you can wrest what you want from the tradition and watch it spring back.” The traditional song is here an exciting marriage of atypical blues lines and chanted “work” rhythms applied to a chord progression developed from the James Taylor song, Wandering. Released as a single, Poor Old Horse achieves the distinction of being selected as “Record of the Week” by disk jockey Simon Bates.

A BBC live recording from 31 May 1977 was released on the Albion Band's CD The BBC Sessions. Of course this hasn't such a wealth of guest backing vocalists but otherwise the line up is nearly identical.

The two CDs Songs from the Shows have two recordings of this song: one from the 1981 Radio Trent recording of the show Albion River Hymn is sung by June Tabor, the other one from the 1984-85 show An Easter Garland has the title Poor Old Man. Both songs have their respective title as refrain.

Jim Mageean and Johnny Collins sang the halyard shanty Poor Old Man live at the Strontrace festival for traditional Dutch sailing barges that takes place every year in Workum, Friesland. This recording was released in 1983 on their Greenwich Village album Strontrace!.

Dan Milner with Liam Milner and Louis Killen on chorus sang Poor Old Horse on his 1998 Folk-Legacy CD Irish Ballads & Songs of the Sea. He noted:

“Paying off a dead horse” was a spectacular effort. It was the custom for sailors to draw a month's wages in advance, with the proceeds often going to flash girls, publicans and the likes of Paddy West. The Dead Horse celebration came at the end of the first month at sea when a horse made of canvas was dragged along the deck and rigged to the main yard-arm. A blue flare was fired as a sailor cut the line and the ‘horse’ sank below. Bill Doerflinger points out that this text combines the words of more standard versions of Poor Old Horse with The Sailor's Grace.

Keith Kendrick sang The Dead Horse (Poor Old Man) in 2012 on the anthology of shanties collected from John Short by Cecil Sharp, Short Sharp Shanties Vol. 3: Sea Songs of a Watchet Sailor. The accompanying notes commented:

All writers, it seems, cite the Dead Horse shanty as belonging to the Dead Horse Ceremony, which is well described by many authors, and Hugill is of the opinion that the shanty was “originally consecrated for use at this ceremony only, but in later days, when the ceremony fell into disuse, it was utilised as a halyard song”. However, Short's words for Dead Horse move rapidly into general ‘female encounter’ verses. We have kept the text in that style, and used various verses more usually associated with Dead Horse for Poor Old Man (a.k.a. O Wake Her, O Shake Her / Girl with the Blue Dress / Johnny Come to Hilo) where Short also used Dead Horse verses. Perhaps the shanty was not ‘originally consecrated’ to the ceremony—particularly with different verses—but became so, and with a consolidation of relevant verses, later in its evolution.

Granny's Attic sang Poor Old Man in 2016 on their WildGoose CD Off the Land. They noted:

We learnt this from [Ian Campbell]'s recording, featured on the Topic compilation Sailors' Songs & Sea Shanties. After the first month at sea when sailors' wages were due they ritually dumped a stuffed horse overboard; this had its origins in an English village tradition involving men dressing as horses for pantomime. They would sing, dance and collect beer money—we like to see ourselves as bearers of at least two of those traditions.

Stick in the Wheel sang Poor Old Horse on their 2018 CD Follow Them True.

Rakoczy sang the Dead Horse shanty in 2020 on her Talking Cat album Frontrunner, an exploration of the image of the horse in British folklore. She noted:

To finish, here's a palate cleanser about the ‘dead horse’ of written off contractual debt. Some coastal communities still hold dead horse ceremonies to this day, casting effigies into the sea. Popularised by Assassin's Creed, arguably this song has done more to the British Shanty tradition than any other. Apparently, you can flog a dead horse.

Lyrics

Ian Campbell sings Poor Old Horse

I say, old man, your horse is dead.
And we say so; and we hope so.
I say, old man, your horse is dead.
Oh, poor old man.

One month of rotten life we've led.
And we say so; and we hope so.
While you lay on your feather bed.
Oh, poor old man.

But now the month is up all turn.
Get up, you swine, and look for work.

Get up, you swine, and look for graft.
While we lay's on an' yanks ye aft.

An' yanks ye aft to the cabin door.
And the hope's we'll never see you more.

Albion Band's Rise Up Like the Sun / BBC Sessions shanty

They say, old man, your horse will die.
And they say so; and we hope so.
They say, old man, your horse will die.
Oh, poor old man.

And if he dies then we'll tan his hide.
And they say so; and we hope so.
And if he dies then we'll tan his hide.
Oh, poor old man.

And if he lives then we'll ride again.
And if he lives then we'll ride again.

And it's after years of much abuse.
And we'll salt him down for the sailor's use.

He's as dead as a nail in the lamp-room floor.
He's as dead as a nail in the lamp-room floor.

[Rise Up:] And he won't bother us no more.
And he won't bother us no more.

[BBC:] And you won't see his like no more.
And you won't see his like no more.

And it's Sally's in the garden and she's pickin' peas.
And her long black hair's hanging down to her knees.

And it's Sally's in the kitchen and she's bakin' the dough.
And the cheeks of her arse are going chuff-chuff-chuff.

And it's down the long and the winding road.
And it's down the long and the winding road.

It's mahogany beef and the weevily bread.
It's mahogany beef and the weevily bread.

And I thought I heard the old man say.
Just one more pull and then belay.

Just one more pull and that will do.
For we're the lads to kick her through.