The Bosun's Alphabet [456-457] (341-342)





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Published on Jul 10, 2009

or The Sailor's Alphabet.
This sort of "Alphabet Song," a pattern of some antiquity, has many variants for various trades, such as "The Fisherman's Alphabet," "The Bargeman's Alphabet," and "The Lumberman's Alphabet." There's also a very "dirty" version, but frankly it is quite boring. It's far more interesting hearing/learning these terms for the things in the life of a given professional. Compared to other variants of the sailors' version, too, I think this one, learned by Stan Hugill from Jack Birch of Plymouth, has the more interesting objects. Some other versions, too, crap out on the difficult end letters, with such phrases as "XYZ we cannot put in rhyme." I think the "X marks the spot" in this one is quite clever, being an intertextual reference to "Stormy" who, we know from other chanteys, "slipped his cable off Cape Horn."

I changed one line in Birch's version, because it contains an offensive word that is unnecessary given the many other available terms. However, I hate to obscure or erase history, and the line is also pretty fascinating for what it reveals about racial attitudes:
"N is for the Nigger gals in the land to which we go."
This is the first chantey in the collection that I've come across in which "the N word" (pun intended) is being used from a White-voice. While it appeared in some earlier songs, those were in a Black-voice -- either they were sung by Black sailors, or they were songs of African-American origin (i.e. even if commonly sung by White sailors). Those that come to mind are "Lowlands Low," "Johnny Come Down to Hilo," and "Hog-Eye Man." In this case, however, the "N-" is clearly the Other. The term is not used to cause offense, however. Indeed, it is the "gals" that are singled out, presumably as objects of adoration. It is all the more interesting if one considers that all the other things named (except, "Zoe," which is clearly there because no other word could be found) are things aboard ship, whereas the N-gals are something wholly outside that-- why mention them with so many other, more obvious things that fit the theme? This suggests IMHO an extra interest in them on the part of the singer!

As a chantey, "The Bosun's Alphabet" was for the pumps, though it was probably more often sung as a forebitter.

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