Most versions of The Sailor's Alphabet (Roud 159) follow a pretty standard format, namely that each line of the four-line stanza begins with a letter of the alphabet, and that the letters are all in alphabetical order, starting with the letter A and ending with the letter Z. The late Johnny Doughty, a fisherman from Rye, had this version of the song:
The Sailor's Alphabet (1)
A's for the anchor that swings at our bow
B for the bowsprits through the wild seas do plough
C for the capstan we merrily around
D are the davits we lower our boats down.
Chorus: Sing high, sing low, wherever you go
Give a sailor his tot and there's nothing goes wrong.
Now E for the ensign that flies at our peak
F is the fo'c'sle where the good sailors sleep
G for the galley where the cooks hop around
H are the halyards we haul up and down.
Now I is the iron the ship is made of
J for the jib which moves her along
K is the keel at the bottom of the ship
L is the lanyards that never do slip.
Now M is the mainmast so neat and so strong
N for the needles which never go wrong
O for the oars we row our boats out
P for the pumps that we keep her afloat.
Q for the quarter-deck where officers do stand
R is the rudder that steers us to land
S for the sailors which move her along
T for the topsails we pull up and down.
U for the union which flies from our peak
V for the vitals which the sailors do eat
W for wheel where we all take our turn
X,Y,Z is the name on our stern.1
Alphabet songs similar to this one exist among many communities. Soldiers, bargemen, lumberjacks, and sheepherders, among others, have their own versions of this mnemonic device which may originally have been influenced by such nursery rhymes as: A was an apple-pie / B bit it / C cut it / D dealt it / E eat it etc. which was well-known during the reign of Charles II (1660 - 1685). One interesting version, known as Tom Thumb's Alphabet dates from at least the beginning of the 18th century and could have well provided the basic idea behind Johnny's song:
A was an archer, who shot at a frog,In 2001 I was living in north Northumberland and, having given a talk on folk music to an audience in Berwick-upon-Tweed, I was told of an elderly man in neighbouring Wooler who knew some 'old songs'. A couple of days later I found myself knocking on Bart Stanton's door and, much to my delight, I found that he did indeed known some songs, including two versions of The Sailor's Alphabet. The first version, which he had learnt as a boy from his father, was similar to that sung by Johnny Doughty and many other singers. Sadly, though, he could only remember two or three verses and not the complete song. But his second version was something altogether different.
B was a butcher, and had a great dog,
C was a captain, all covered with lace,
D was a drunkard, and had a red face, (etc.)
Unlike other versions of the song, this one had a separate stanza for each letter of the alphabet. In other words, the song contained twenty-six stanzas and was certainly the longest version of the song that I had ever come across. In fact, I could think of no other version that was in this format.
Bart had the song from George Livingston Shell (1911 - 1994), a fisherman (and, to all accounts, a “character”) who lived on Holy Island, just off the Northumberland coast. According to Bart, Mr Shell would stamp his foot hard on the ground before singing each verse. The tune was more or less identical to that used by Johnny Doughty for his version of the song.
The Sailor's Alphabet (2)
A stands for anchor, it's the fisherman's hope.
It's a very good thing with a chain or a rope,
To ride out the storm and keep time with the tide,
In his beautiful craft, which he watches with pride.
B stands for binnacle, which is close to hand,
When steering his craft far, far from the land.
To the grounds which he knows are oft covered with fish,
That get him a living and make some people rich.
C stands for the capstan, the crew at it work,
And woe to the lad who his duty do shirk.
For the captain is blunt and he thinks it no sin,
To give him the sack without any tin (money).
D stands for darkness, through which he must go
On cold winter nights, in rain, frost or snow,
When dangers are rife and fill landsmen with dread,
Even when they are snug in a warm cosy bed.
E stands for eke out the bread, beef and tea,
'Waste not' is the motto when sailing at sea.
For when you are hundreds of miles from the shore
It is hard to replenish an impoverished store.
F stands for fish, a most cheery sight.
Let them be caught in the day or the night,
And those who do catch them with net or with line,
God bless their toil, and send them plenty of prime.
G stands for gaff which is attached to the sail,
To hold it smart in calm or in gale.
So up with the peak and hold her a-luff,
To steer a smack well, you must not be a muff.
H stands for hatchway which leads to the hold,
Where they carry tackle, water and coal.
And ballast to make her stand up to the breeze,
Top carry her over gigantic seas.
I stand for ice, a most useful thing,
It enables fishermen his catches to bring
For many a league from his own native home
Where fickle fortune compels him to roam.
J stands for Jack, oft a fisherman's name,
But they christened him John, though that was too tame.
He spends his good money quite free on the shore,
Then to sea he will go for to earn him some more.
K stands for keel, of timber so strong,
Which stretches from stem to sternpost along,
And never, no never, your smack to keep sound,
She never should touch on any hard ground.
L stands for lamps both red and green glass,
To prevent sad collisions when vessels do pass.
So keep them well trimmed to make them burn bright,
Then you shipmates below will sleep more safe at night.
M stands for moon; it's the fisherman's joy.
He is as pleased with its rays as a child with a toy.
For it lightens his path and makes the fish sport
And gladdens his heart as to market they are brought.
N stands for north, the compass card round
If you raise it up beneath will be found -
A small bar of steel and a lodestone as well,
Always points to the pole and acts like a spell.
O stands for oyster, a most expensive treat,
And if you buy natives you will vouch they are sweet.
They are a dish for the king and will nourish the brain,
So once you have tasted them you will try them again.
P stands for port when sailing at sea,
Whether close hauled or with the wind free.
It's the rule of the road and an excellent plan,
To use the port helm whenever you can.
Q stands for quick sands, a most dangerous place,
That gets lots of skippers in a shocking disgrace.
Do look out for the lightship and cast over the lead,
This hint then may save you from sorrow and dread.
R stands for rigging, which holds up the mast
When carrying sails before the rude blast.
So give her the sheet, it's a lowering sky
And to see bonny Kate tonight we will try.
S stands for stars, those heavenly flames,
Though only a few fishermen boast of astronomer's fame.
But they can point to Orion and Saturn and Day,
Yonder is the Pole Star, cross the Milky Way.
T stands for tacking, get ready about.
“Hard down with the helm”, the skipper will shout.
“Ease off the jib sheet, your bowline stand by.
There goes the Bold Admiral to catch him we'll try.”
U stands for Union Jack, if you please.
A flag that we love to see float on the breeze.
It's a fisherman's hope, where e'er he may roam,
It reminds him of kindred and loved ones at home.
V stands for vane, so trim and so smart,
'Tis a guide to the eye and a pride to the heart.
To hoist up gay colours of every hue,
With a smart, active, willing, wide awake crew.
W stands for windlass, the crew as they shy
To heave in the cable, the bobstay and guy.
Ship your handspikes together, sing a merry song,
With hands that are light and arms that are strong.
X is a letter hard to bring in,
That every seaman should learn to swim.
Then if by misfortune you fall in the sea,
What an excellent thing this letter might be!
Y stands for yarn that an old tar can spin
To his shipmates below before they turn in,
Of adventures at sea, or freaks on the shore
That would cause you to wonder or laugh till you roar.
Z stands for zero in winter so cold,
This letter reminds you my tale is now told.
So clear up fishermen friends on the main,
God guide us to sea, bring us safe home again.
So where did this incredible version come from? Was it composed on Holy Island itself, possibly by George Livingston Shell, or by some other local fisherman? We do know that there were other singers on the island, such as “Old Shadle”, who “was the happiest man alive, 'cos he was singing while he (worked)”. Whoever wrote the song certainly knew about the sea and nautical terminology, and had the ear of a poet. I especially like the way that the letter “X” is brought into play.
But, the song's origins remain a mystery. When I asked Bart Stanton about the song, he said that he had been so busy learning the words that he had never thought to ask Mr Shell about where he had picked it up! Whatever its origin, at least we still have the song. But do we have any singers today who are prepared to tackle such a lengthy piece? Time alone will tell.
Mike Yates - 9.2.10
1. Johnny Doughty The Sailor's Alphabet. Musical Traditions CD Up in the North and down in the South (MTCD 311-2)