> Peter Bellamy > Songs > The Alabama
> Louis Killen > Songs > The Alabama
> Cyril Tawney > Songs > Roll, Alabama, Roll
> Bellowhead > Songs > Roll Alabama

The Alabama / Roll, Alabama, Roll

[ Roud 4710 ; Ballad Index Doe035 ; Mudcat 81820 ; trad.]

The Confederate sloop-of-war CSS Alabama was built by William and John Laird & Co. in Birkenhead, United Kingdom, in 1862. Alabama served as a commerce raider, attacking Union merchant and naval ships over the course of her two-year career, during which she never laid anchor in a Southern port. She was sunk on 19 June 1864 off the coast of Cherbourg by USS Kearsarge. The lyrics of the shanty Roll, Alabama, Roll are attributed to the Confederate sailor Frank Townsend who served on the ship.

80 years later, on 19 June 1944, its namesake the battleship USS Alabama (BB-60) took part in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the largest aircraft carrier battle in history, which basically finished the threat of Japanese aircraft carriers to the US Navy.

Peter Bellamy and Louis Killen sang the three shanties Won’t You Go My Way?, A Hundred Years Ago, and The Alabama on 22 June 1971 live at the Folk Studio, Norwich, with the audience cheerfully joining in on the chorus. This performance was issued in the following year on their LP Won’t You Go My Way?.

Swan Arcade sang Roll Alabama Roll in 1973 on their eponymous Trailer album Swan Arcade. They noted:

This version was learnt by Dave [Brady] from the singing of Brian Senior, a man who did a great deal to help the early revival in Leeds. The song tells of a fight between the U.S. sloop Kearsage and the Confederate ship Alabama on 19 June 1864. The version is historically incorrect, since the stern and not the bows was hit. Hugill lists the song as a hauling or capstan shanty. Thanks to Dave Burland, Alasdair Cameron, Dave Farrer, Jimmy Hutchison and Frank Toward for joining in the chorus.

Cyril Tawney sang Roll, Alabama, Roll in 1992 on his Neptune Tapes cassette Seamen Bold.

Geoff Kaufman sang Roll, Alabama, Roll in 2004 at the 25th Annual Sea Music Festival at Mystic Seaport.

Rattle on the Stovepipe sang Roll, Alabama, Roll in 2010 on their WildGoose CD No Use in Cryin’. They noted:

The C.S.S. Alabama, the Confederate navy’s most successful commerce raider of the American Civil War, was as famous in Britain as in the southern states. Known originally as merely “No. 290”, she was built under great secrecy in John Laird’s Birkenhead shipyard on the River Mersey, under the suspicious eyes of northern Federal spies. When finished in July 1862, and ostensibly undergoing sea trials as a cargo vessel, she made a run for the Azores where she was provisioned and armed as a battle cruiser. Here Captain Raphael Semmes and his Confederate officers took command of the ship and its crew, which included around 80 Liverpool seamen who signed the articles of war in expectation of prize-money and adventure. During her two-year career the Alabama took 65 United States ships, destroying 52 of them. Her luck ran out on a sunny day in 1864 when she fought the U.S.S. Kearsage and was sunk in 195 feet of water 6 miles off the French port of Cherbourg. Of the several songs written about the Alabama, this one, even if not strictly historically accurate, seems to have caught the popular imagination of 19th century sailors and folk club singers. We have tweaked it a little by giving it an additional chorus.

Jon Boden sang Roll Alabama as the 19 June 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. He commented in the blog:

I used to sing this a lot when I got started with fiddle-singing. It always used to go down well at the Talking Heads in Southampton. One of the great shanty choruses I think, although I’m not sure it’s actually a work shanty?

He returned to Roll Alabama in 2014 on Bellowhead’s album Revival. It’s album notes commented:

This is a traditional halyard (i.e. rope-hauling) shanty. It tells the true story of the sinking of the Mersey-built Confederate sloop-of-war CSS Alabama by the Yankee USS Kearsarge on 19 June 1864 just outside of Cherbourg harbour. It’s perhaps not surprising that a song about a ship involved in the American Civil War became part of the English folksong tradition as with the ship having been built in secrecy in Birkenhead, many of the crew were British being enticed to join the Confederate Navy by the lure of double pay and prize money. There was presumably plenty of the latter as by the time she met her end just two years later, she’d captured or burnt 65 Union merchant ships. Incidentally the shipyard referred to in the song, ‘Jonathan Laird’ became famous in the 20th century as Cammell Laird’s and still operates in the present day.


Peter Bellamy and Louis Killen sing The Alabama

When the Alabama’s keel was laid
  Roll, Alabama, roll!
It was laid in the yard of Jonathan Laird
  Oh, roll, Alabama, roll!

It was laid in the yard of Jonathan Laird
It was laid in the town of Birkenhead

Across the Mersey river she sailed then
And Liverpool fitted her with guns and men

From the Western Isles she sailed forth
To destroy all commerce of the North

Down to Cherbourg came she straight one day
For to take her toll in prize money

There many a sailor lad met his doom
When the ship Kearsarge hove in view

And a shot from the forward pivot that day
It shot the Alabama’s stern away

In the three-mile limit, in sixty-five
The Alabama sunk to her grave