> The Young Tradition > Songs > Hanging Johnny

Hanging Johnny

[ Roud 2625 ; Ballad Index Doe031 ; DT HANGJOHN ; Mudcat 72779 ; trad.]

The Young Tradition recorded four sea shanties, Fire Maringo, Hanging Johnny, Bring ’em Down, and Haul on the Bowline, for their 1967 EP Chicken on a Raft. Royston Wood sang lead on the first and third shanty, Peter Bellamy on the second and fourth. All tracks from the EP were included in the compilation album The Young Tradition Sampler and CD Galleries / Chicken on a Raft / No Relation. They also sang Hanging Johnny on 17 November 1968 at their concert at Oberlin College, Ohio, that was published in 2013 on their Fledg’ling CD Oberlin 1968. The EP sleeve notes commented:

Hanging Johnny is a good example of a shanty that was ready made for stringing out, a trick used by the shantyman for lengthening a song to suit the job in hand. Anyone could be a candidate for Hanging Johnny’s rope until he had enough verses to finish the job.

Thames barge skipper Bob Roberts sang Hanging Johnny in a Peter Kennedy recording from the 1950s on the Saydisc anthology CD of traditional English sea songs and shanties from the last days of sail, Sea Songs and Shanties.

Clark Branson from San Jose sang Hanging Johnny on the 1979 Folkways album Sea Songs Seattle.

Jon Boden sang Hanging Johnny as the 11 February 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day.

Tom Brown sang Hanging Johnny accompanied on chorus by Barbara Brown, Keith Kendrick, Jim Mageean and Doug Bailey, on the 2011 anthology of sea songs collected from John Short by Cecil Sharp, Short Sharp Shanties Vol. 1. The accompanying notes commented:

Sharp publishes a set of words in which the shantyman does not himself hang people and indeed sings, I never hung nobody. Hugill is adamant (as is Terry) that no shantyman ever claimed that anyone other than himself was the hangman, and that “Sentimental verses like some collectors give were never sung—Sailor John hanged any person or thing he would think about without a qualm.” Checking these ‘some collectors”, one finds several who elect only to hang the bad guys—liars, murderers, etc.—are these the verses Hugill means by ‘sentimental’ or is he having a go at Sharp for the shantyman not being the hangman himself? Sharp’s notebooks show that he recorded from Short the same as he published. It could be that Short is self-censoring but it seems unlikely given that Short seems happy, in various other shanties, to sing text that might not be regarded as genteel (e.g. [I Wish I Was With] Nancy, Lucy Long, Shanadore). Short was, however, a deeply religious man and, if this is not simply an early and less developed form of the shanty, then he may have deliberately avoided casting himself as hangman—we will never know! Notwithstanding, and contrary to Hugill’s assertion, there was at least one shantyman who actually sang I never hung nobody.

Collectors’/publishers’ reactions to the shanty are curiously mixed: Bullen merely notes that “shanties whose choruses were adapted for taking two pulls in them… were exceedingly useful”, Fox Smith that it had an “almost macabre irony which is not found in any other shanty”, and Maitland that “This is about as doleful a song as I ever heard” but, in an almost poetic description points out that “there’s a time when it comes in. For instance after a heavy blow, getting more sail on the ship. The decks are full of water and the men cannot keep their feet. The wind has gone down, but the seas are running heavy. A big comber comes over the rail; the men are washed away from the rope. If it wasn’t for the man at the end of the rope gathering in the slack as the men pull, all the work would have to be done over again.”—Horses for courses!

The Salts sang Hanging Johnny on their 2013 album She Rises. A live recording from Wilton’s Music Hall, London, on 13 April 2023, was included in the following year on their album Live in London Town.

Finn Collinson sang Hanging Johnny in 2019 on his album Call to Mind. He noted:

A traditional halyard shanty which I have given a full band treatment and a new chorus. The subject is not quite what it seems—the hanging Johnny was in fact the boy who climbed the main mast to haul up the sails.


The Young Tradition sing Hanging Johnny

They call me Hanging Johnny
    Away, boys, away!
But I never hanged nobody
    So hang, boys, hang!

They says I hanged my graddy
And then I hanged my family

They says I hanged my mother
It is they and my brother

I hanged a rotten liar
But I hanged a bloody friar

They tells I hang for money
But hanging’s so bloody funny

We all will hang together
It’s all for better weather