The History of Leith

November 9, 2004


When I first read this poem, I felt it was a good choice for an introduction to this section. While it suffers modestly from the romanticism characteristic of the landsman, it’s a pretty good poetic summary of the sailor’s existence. A couple of years later, I discovered that sailors thought so, too!
I was reading about “Can’t You Dance the Polka” in Stan Hugill’s classic Shanties from the Seven Seas, and I recognized the words of what he calls the “Shanghaied in San Francisco” theme. It seems that this poem was not only sung in its own right (Hugill provides the tune), but the words were fitted to the “Can’t You Dance the Polka” shanty with the “Away Susanna” chorus to make the poem into a work song.

Hugill says, “Probably some versatile shantyman thought them ‘just the job’ and spliced them to the old Packet Rat shanty. Nevertheless, they were accepted and sung by hundreds of shantymen in the latter days of sail. Every sailing-ship man I ever knew was acquainted with them.”

The “straw-stuffed bed” – a standard part of the sailor’s kit on going aboard – was commonly known as a “donkey’s breakfast”, as in this old anchor song:

“Bright plates and pannikins
To sail the seas around,
And a new donkey’s breakfast
For the outward bound!”
Shanghaied in San Francisco
We brought up in Bombay
Where they put us afloat in an old Leith boat
That steered like a stack of hay.

We’ve sweltered in the Tropics
When the pitch boiled through the deck–
And saved our hides and little besides
In an ice-cold North Sea wreck.

We’ve drunk our rum in Portland
And we’ve thrashed through Bering Strait–
And we’ve toed the mark on a Yankee barque
With a hard-case Down-east mate.

We know the streets of Santos
And the loom of the lone Azores–
We’ve eat our grub from a salt-horse tub
Condemned from the Navy stores.

We know the quay of Glasgow
And the river at Saigon–
We’ve drunk our glass with a Chinese lass
In a house-boat at Canton.

We know the road to Auckland
And the light on Sydney Head–
And we’ve crept close-hauled when the leadsman called
The depth of the Channel bed.

They pay us off in London
And it’s “O for a spell ashore!”
But again we ship for the Southern trip
In a week or hardly more

For– it’s “Goodbye Sally and Sue”
And– “It’s time to get afloat–”
With an aching head and a straw-stuffed bed,
And a knife and an oil-skin coat.

Sing– “Time to leave her, Johnny!”
Sing– “Bound for the Rio Grande!”
When the tug turns back you follow her track
For a last, long look at land.

Then the purple disappears–
And only the blue is seen–
That will take our bones to Davy Jones
And our souls to Fiddler’s Green.


For more go to the link “Poetry of the Sea” on the rhs

Some Text