> Blue Murder > Songs > Bully in the Alley

Bully in the Alley

[ Roud 8287 ; Ballad Index Hug522 ; trad.]

Blue Murder sang Bully in the Alley in 2002 on their album No One Stands Alone. ‘Bully’ here seems to be not a ruffian but the state of being passed out drunk.

Danny Spooner sang Bully in the Alley on his 2009 CD Bold Reilly Gone Away. He noted:

Bully in the Alley started life as a Negro song. Halyard shanty, can also be used at the pumps because it’s one of these that has innumerable verses.

Finest Kind sang Bully in the Alley on their 2010 album For Honour & for Gain. They noted:

A raucous work song sung in the ante bellum American South by men screwing (i.e., compressing) cotton in the hold of sailing vessels for a maximum load. ‘Shinbone Al’(ley) is thought to be the one in St George, Bermuda. To be ‘bully’ was to be legless drunk.

Tom Brown sang Bully in the Alley in 2012 on Short Sharp Shanties Vol. 3. The album notes commented:

Bully in the Alley crops up as published only from Short via Sharp (“I have no variants of this nor do I know of any printed version of it”)—except for one other version that Hugill ‘picked up in the West Indies’. There are three other shanties of this title in the Carpenter collection, with first lines that seem to be related (Edward Robinson—John Brown’s body in the alley and Cptn. Robinson—I lost my jacket in the alley [both of Sunderland, England]—and Mr. Forman [of Leith, Edinburgh, Scotland]—I lost my coat in Story’s Alley). Judging by extant recordings and the internet, all revival versions seem to have the same structure, and stem from Hugill. Hugill’s version gives Shinbone Al as a location in his text. There are Shinbone Alleys in St. George’s, Bermuda, in Antigua, and in Pittsburgh—to name but a few! (Story’s Alley, incidentally, is in Leith). There has also been some speculation that ‘Bully’ is a synonym for ‘drunk’: it could equally be synonymous with ‘bullish’ i.e. aggressive (which might account for leaving your jacket in an alley after taking it off for a fight!).

Short’s version gives no location and no indication of drunkenness. In fact, the fragments of Short’s text are more reminiscent of Sally in Our Alley the composition by Henry Carey published in 1726, which became very popular in the U.S. in the nineteenth century, not the Gracie Fields 1931 song) than of Bermudan alcoholism—but either ‘explanation’ of the shanty is probably grasping at straws and ultimately pointless.

Hugill comments, on the version published by Sharp, that “I feel that this version has all the signs of being in a worn condition, as though Mr. Short’s memory, in this case, didn’t serve him well.” It certainly proved a difficult manuscript to get ‘inside’ and understand. Sharp did not always mark his manuscripts with ‘solo’ or ‘chorus’, nor did he usually mark the stresses—the conclusion must be that when he does so (as he does throughout this shanty), it is because he has specifically checked it with Short for whatever reason. Sharp’s solo/chorus markings and stresses initially did not seem logical, primarily because the Hugill version is so ingrained! However, the way it seems to work is actually as Sharp recorded/published it, although it is still open to some degree of interpretation. It feels as though this version is far closer to a cotton-screwing chant than the Hugill version. (Carpenter makes a note beside the version from Edward Robinson that it also was for ‘cotton screwing’). There is only one complete verse and a couple of phrases from Short to Sharp, so the additional words are from Hugill’s version but ignoring location aspects, and reworked to fit Short’s structure.

Granny’s Attic sang Bully in the Alley on their 2014 CD Better Weather. They commented in their liner notes:

While ashore, it was not unheard of for sailors to go out drinking in groups. And like many groups of people, they may not all have had the same capacity for drink leading to on sailor becoming incapacitated, or ‘bully’, while his shipmates wanted to carry on. So until they were all ready to go back on board together, they would have to hide their crew mate in a quiet place (in this case, an alley).

This video shows Kimber’s Men singing Bully in the Alley in the Lifeboat House during the Deal Maritime Festival on 22 September 2013:


Blue Murder sing Bully in the Alley

Chorus (after each verse):
So! Help me Bob, I’m bully in the alley
    Way-ay, hay-ay, bully in the alley
So! Help me Bob, I’m bully in the alley
    Bully down in Shinbone Al

Well, Sally is a girl that I loved dearly
    Way-ay, ay-ay, bully in the alley
Well, Sally is the girl that I spliced nearly
    Bully down in Shinbone Al

When I get to Saint Lou, I’m gonna steer for my Sally
I’ll throw her a line and make fast in her alley

I’m gonna make damn sure nobody ties up at her quay
She told me that this mooring was just for me

When it’s time to leave, I’m gonna slip my cable
Gonna visit my Sal as often as I’m able

I’m gonna leave my Sal and go out a-sailing
Gonna leave my gal and go out a-whaling

Danny Spooner sings Bully in the Alley

Sally she’s a girl in our alley
    Way hey, bully in the alley
Sally she’s a girl that I spliced nearly
    Bully down in Shinbone Al

Chorus (after each verse):
So help ’im Bob I’m bully in the alley
    Way hey, bully in the alley
So help ’im Bob I’m bully in the alley
    Bully down in Shinbone Al

But I left Sally and I went sailin’
Left her there to go a-whalin’

Sally she’s a girl that I loved dearly
She had my heart—or very nearly

Sally she is a bright Mulatto
A nice little girl but I can’t get at her

Sally where shall I stow the cargo?
You’ll stow some for’ard and stow some after

Take in yer lines and make her fast boys
Drop in the pawls, we’ve heaved enough now


Thanks to Lester Simpson, Georgina Boyes and Roberto Campo for the lyrics.