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Boston Harbour / Big Bow Wow / From Sweet Dundee

[ Roud 613 ; Ballad Index BAF831 ; VWML GG/1/7/385 ; DT BSTNHRBR ; Mudcat 15700 , 20991 ; trad.]

Nigel Gatherer: Songs and Ballads of Dundee Joanna C. Colcord: Songs of American Sailormen

Captain W.B. Whall printed the forebitter Boston in his book Sea Songs & Shanties (Glasgow: James Brown & Sons, 1910). He commented:

The origin of the following example is unknown to me. It is evidently the work of a seaman and has, probably, never before appeared in print. I have never met with it. The song goes with a good swing, and was very popular between the years of 1860 and 1870, though now, I fear, it has gone the way of all songs with choruses, and is replaced by music hall inanities.

The Watersons sang this song as Boston Harbour in 1965 on the Topic album New Voices. This track was also included in 1971 on the Topic sampler Sea Songs and Shanties and in 1984 on the French compilation Chants de Marins IV: Ballads, Complaintes et Shanties des Matelots Anglais. Like all Watersons tracks from New Voices it was reissued on the CD Early Days. They also sang Boston Harbour live at the Down River Folk Club, Loughton, on 20 October 1974, together with the Pace-Egging Song and Mike Waterson’s Sweet William. All three tracks can be found on the Watersons’ 2004 anthology Mighty River of Song. A.L. Lloyd commented in the first album’s sleeve notes:

The bold Captain W.B. Whall was the first to print this song in his pioneer collection of Sea Songs & Shanties. He says: “It is evidently the work of a seaman… and was very popular between the years 1860 and 1870.” It’s a fo’c’sle song, a forebitter, not a shanty. The Bow-wow chorus is borrowed from an influential music hall song of the mid-nineteenth century.

The Ripley Wayfarers sang Boston Harbour in 1972 on their Traditional Sound Recordings album Five Wells.

Joe Hickerson sang Boston Harbour in 1973 on the National Geographic Society album Songs & Sounds of the Sea. The album’s booklet noted:

The origin of this song, which was also called With a Big Bow Wow, remains a mystery, but the popularity it enjoyed during the 1860’s is proof that some unknown lyricist succeeded in putting into words the feelings of many a man before the mast toward his hard-handed skipper. The tune itself was very common at the time, and provided the vehicle for a number of different sets of words. Joe Hickerson, who sings it here, has seen many a 19th-century song text carrying the note, “Air: With a Big Bow Wow”.

Jeff and Gerret Warner and Tony Saletan join in the chorus.

John Spiers & Jon Boden sang Boston Harbour on their 2001 CD, Through & Through, and Jon Boden sang it as the 8 November 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. He noted:

A biting satire on authority figures everywhere and an anthem for all those who feel like throwing their superiors to the sharks. Learnt from the inspirational singing of the Watersons.

The Revels sang Boston Harbour in 2002 on their CD with Louis Killen, Homeward Bound, but Killen doesn’t seem to be on this track.

Danny Spooner sang Boston Harbour on his 2009 CD Bold Reilly Gone Away. He noted:

Whether it refers to Boston in America or Boston Harbour in Lincolnshire, England, Boston Harbour is a great piece that’d work well for sweating up a main-course.

Tim Radford sang From Sweet Dundee on his 2012 Forest Tracks album From Spithead Roads. This was collected by George Gardiner from Frederick White (68) on 21 June 1906 in Southampton Workhouse [VWML GG/1/7/385] .

Alex Cumming sang Boston Harbour on his 2024 album Homecoming. He noted:

This is a song I finally got around to learning after many UK friends saying I should learn it when I moved to Greater Boston back in 2015. This version of the song was collected and published by Captain W.B. Whall in his 1910 book, Sea Songs & Shanties.

Thomas Shrug March is a great tune written by pianist, singer and producer Thomas Bartlett, who is probably best known in the folk realms as a member of The Gloaming.


Boston in W.B. Whall: Sea Songs and Shanties

From Boston Harbour we set sail,
When it was blowing a devil of a gale,
With our ringtail set abaft the mizzen peak
And our Rule Britannia ploughing up the deep.

Chorus (after each verse):
With a big bow-wow! Tow-row-row!
Fol de rol de ri do day!

Up comes the skipper from down below,
And he looks aloft and he looks alow,
And he looks alow and he looks aloft,
And its “Coil up your ropes there, fore and aft!”

Then down to his cabin he quickly crawls,
And unto his steward he loudly bawls,
“Go, mix me a glass that will make me cough,
For it’s better weather here than it is up aloft.”

We poor sailors standing on the deck,
With the blasted rain all a-pouring down our necks;
Not a drop of grog would he to us afford,
But he damned our eyes at every other word.

Now the old beggar’s dead and gone,
Darn his eyes, he left a son;
And if to us he doesn’t prove frank,
We’ll very soon make him walk the plank.

And one thing which we have to crave,
Is that he may have a watery grave,
So we’ll heave him down into some dark hole,
Where the sharks’ll have his body and the devil have his soul.

The Watersons sing Boston Harbour

From Boston Harbour we set sail
When it was blowin’ the devil of a gale,
With the ring-tail set all avast the mizzen peak
And Rule Britannia ploughin’ up the deep.

Chorus (after each verse):
With a big bow-wow! Tow-row-row!
Fol de rol de ri do day!

Then up come the skipper from down below,
It’s “Look aloft, lads, look alow!”
And it’s “Look alow!” and it’s “Look aloft!”
And “Tie up your ropes, lads, fore and aft!”

Then down to his cabin well he quickly crawls,
Unto his poor old steward bawls,
“Go and mix me a glass that will make me cough
For it’s better weather here than it is on top.”

Now there’s one thing that we have to crave:
That the captain meets with a watery grave.
So we’ll throw him down into some dark hole
Where the sharks’ll have his body and the devil have his soul.

Tim Radford sings From Sweet Dundee

From sweet Dundee where we set sail,
All with a sweet and a pleasant gale,
With our ring-tails set all abaft our mizzen peak,
For to see, my jolly tars, how she’s scudding o’er the deep.

Chorus (after each verse):
To my he ri ro, to my he ri ro,
To my he ri ro,
Rite fal de ral de day

Now by and by there came along a squall.
“Haul down your ring-tails,” our Captain loudly bawls,
“Clew up your top-gallant sails and take them in;
Let two hands lay forward and your jib run down.”

It’s now our Captain he goes down below.
He calls for his cabin boy, little Joe,
Saying, “Bring unto me one stiff glass of grog,
For it’s far better weather down below than above.”

Then our Chief Make, he goes down below.
He sups up his grog, just so, just so.
But he never cries for Jack or never cries for Joe,
He does all the bullying and down below he goes.


Transcribed by Garry Gillard. Thanks to Paul Tracy for a confirmatory note. Thanks also to Heather Wood who sent me the “dead and gone” verse missing from the Watersons’ version that she found in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.