As with all other sea chanteys, versions of “Blow the Man Down” are multiple and idiosyncratic. Depending on the chanteyman, the ship, the particular crew, and/or the particular events that befall the crew on the voyage, a known sea chantey text will be extemporized so as to match the experiences, or the delights, of the men involved in the voyage. “Blow the Man Down” is slightly different from other sea chantey texts as it has been termed one of the most prolific sea chanteys in circulation. Frederick Pease Harlowe, in his collection of chanteys and sailor songs titled Chanteying Aboard American Ships mentions that “It [“Blow the Man Down”] has been sung so often that the words are legion.”[i] One of the more intriguing examples of “Blow the Man Down” is the version known as “the milkmaid text,” named as such by the late chantey collector Stan Hugill. A version of “the milkmaid text” surfaces in Gordon’s Inferno Collection, which is a collection of bawdy folklore materials located in the Library of Congress’s Folklife Center and was compiled by Robert W. Gordon. Over the next several blog installments, I will deconstruct the narrative elements located in “the milkmaid text” found in Gordon’s collection. Excerpts from this series of blog posts will eventually be published in a more concise critical reading of the text. For this first installment, I will be providing some background on the text to be considered and will also deconstruct the refrain of this particular version of “Blow the Man Down.” Specifically, touch on readings of the terms bullies, the man, and blow. I look forward to reading any comments, questions, suggestions, or alternative interpretations.
Gordon offers no marginal notes concerning when and where he collected this particular version of “Blow the Man Down”; however, the song is numbered “239” in the manuscript collection and is sandwiched by two texts: “Uncle Bud,” a cotton-picking song said to have been sung in 1908 and a version of “Fire Down Below,” a capstan or pumping chantey collected August 24, 1923. The song begins in the same way that most other versions of “Blow the Man Down” do with the refrain reading
Oh blow the man down, bullies blow him away
To my Way-Hay-ay Blow the man down
Oh blow the man down, bullies blow him away
Give me some time to blow the man down.
The refrain is rather vague in its address who “the man” might be who will be “blow(n) down”; however, the anchor word that helps to give the reader a way in is the term “bullies.” A “bully boy” was a slang term for a sailor. Sailors are often referred to as “Bully Boys,” “bullies,” or the full title “John Bull.” In fact, “John Bull” is interchangeable with the other nickname for a sailor which was Jack Tar. Bullies and bully boys find themselves throughout a vast number of sea chanteys, this example from “Blow the Man Down” is only a small representation. Other examples of sea chanteys that identify sailors as “bullies” are songs such as “Rio Grande,” “Blow Ye winds,” “Blow, Boys, Blow,” and “Heave Away, Me Johnnies (one alternate is ‘Heave away me bullies’).” The alignment of sailor John with a bully or a bull reinforces aspects of the sailor character that abound in contemporary representations of these salt water figures. The sailor is often described as being incredibly strong, brutish, and, at times, almost animalistic. As was discussed in a previous blog post, the sailor figure is described in such a way as to render him as separate than and, in many respects, comparatively deficient to his land-bound counterparts. The bull is aligned with strength, power, and voracity and the OED clearly supports this reading through listing the many phrases in which the image of the bull takes center stage.[ii] The application of the term bully to the sailor and, especially, the arrival of the term in refrain of this version of “Blow the Man Down,” makes sense in that the collective strength and collective power of the sailing men was required in order to get the ship to function and move. What the term opens to deeper analysis, however, is what the collective sailing brotherhood is being asked to “blow” in the context of this particular narrative. Though it is understood that sailors are to brace against such things as the capstan or pull at ropes so as to raise a sail, the fact remains that the evocation of “blow him away,” levelled as a requirement for the collective bullies creates a charged space ripe for deconstruction.
For the first reading of blow, Joanna Colcord, in her chantey collection titled Songs of the American Sailormen, contends that the term should be considered one that is interchangeable with knock. She shows that “It should be noted that in those days, [she is most likely discussing the era at the height of sea chantey signing, though she does not provide an exact date] ‘blow’ meant ‘knock.”[iii] If using the gloss that Colcord provides, the use of the word, in the refrain of the song, could indicate that sailors are referencing the act of “knocking a man down.” Colcord’s reading of the term blow would actually tie this particular refrain to a song that has been aligned with African American origin and circulated on sailing ships: “Knock a Man Down.” In deconstructing the line through this gloss of the term blow, the collective strength of the sailors would be singing out and pushing/pulling while simulating the force of collectively knocking someone down; namely, this nameless “man.” The collective violence of this reading is interesting; for, it further underscores and supports the popular contemporary construction of the sailor as rough, ready, and prone to altercations. In fact, in Charles Tyng’s memoir Before the Wind, he described how many crews were “about the roughest looking set of fellows as I had ever seen. There were eight of them. All of them had been drinking, and some of them were intoxicated, feeling more ready for a fight than to work.”[iv] If we are to view the refrain in this way, it could be inferred that sailors are embracing the popular constructions or narratives of who they were; however, it could also be a satirical barb to demonstrate that they both know about and understand the narrative but that they are also fighting against it. The addition of “Give me some time to blow the man down” almost indicates a sly barb that hides the admission “oh, I haven’t done anything violent, yet, but I will very soon, if you only ‘give me some time.’” This reading could also intimate that the collective power and force necessary for both the successful running of the ship and also the successful construction of the maritime brotherhood takes time, concerted collective effort, and a touch of violence.
If one takes the interpretation of “the man” as the captain of the ship, this collective violence takes on a further and very important possible meaning. The sea chantey was a means of facilitating the collective effort needed to make the ship function and move; however, it could also be a space where sailors aired grievances or symbolically took power back even when they were in a powerless position. In fact, Greg Denning, in Mr Bligh’s Bad Language, argues that “Bligh’s mutiny, had he reflected on it, may have begun in a ditty.”[v] Sailors lead notoriously awful and dangerous lives when out to sea and these lives were made all the more uncomfortable, barbarous, and sometimes deadly because they were subsumed within a hierarchy where the captain of the ship sometimes lorded over the men, capriciously punishing them, restricting their access to food and drink, and generally misused and abused these working men at whim. This depiction was obviously not true of all captains; however, there existed on ship a clear and distinct delineation between the sailors who were employed at shipboard work and the captains who dictated the requirements and expectations of the ship. Marcus Rediker shows, in Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, that “As Richard B. Morris wrote, ‘Masters frequently drove their crews to the limit of endurance by bullying, profane threats, and the unsavory practice of hazing or ‘working up,’ which consisted of assigning dirty, disagreeable, and dangerous tasks to a particular seaman, too often as a means of settling personal grudges.’”[vi] Likewise, “When it came to captains who were also pursers, sailors’ stomachs were also spaces of power.”[vii] The sailor’s sea chantey was one space where he could level some revenge against an austere captain and, at the very least, regain some measure of power; at the most extreme, the chantey might also be a space where sailors covertly called a mutiny into action. The refrain of “Blow the Man Down” might, in fact, contain a representation of this symbolic power struggle within the lines. The power and the force directed at “the man” and the warning that they men only need to be “given some time,” presents the possible reading that the sexual narrative that comes later in the song is meant only as a means to distract the listening captain from the true meaning of the collective message: there is strength in the sheer number of sailors and these singing men need only the time and the assurance of collective support.
A further reading of this refrain, and the one that most closely aligns with the full narrative of the text, is the sexual innuendo. The term blow bears a connection to fellatio or manual stimulation which connects, ultimately, to later narrative aspects of the chantey dealing with a milkmaid and her sexual encounter with the singing sailor. Because a milkmaid milks cows, she might also milk the sailor. In fact, in this version of “Blow the Man Down,” the reader will encounter a line from the milkmaid where she maintains that “If I was to milk you I’d milk you too dry.” The analysis of these lines will come in subsequent blog posts. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, blow is aligned with the “coarse slang…To fellate. Also intr.,[sic] to practise fellatio.”[viii] “Blow the man down” could be interpreted as a command that a character, either the milkmaid or someone else, must “blow” the nameless man and blow him so powerfully that he is actually knocked down. What is interesting about this particular version of “Blow the Man Down,” is that the refrain appears to connect two men, which suggests the possibility that the song is meant to erotically (or, at the very least, emotionally) tie two men (or the collective brotherhood of the forecastle) together in a similar fashion to what Eve Sedgwick describes in her seminal text Between Men. If the sailors are collectively blowing a man down, as they sing the song together and collectively brace themselves against a task on ship, the refrain could be simulating a collective homoerotic encounter or, at the very least, a collective erotic encounter. Interestingly, The Oxford English Dictionary provides an example of use of the term blow, from a 1933 piece titled Brevities, that reads “‘Sexy sailors blow! Bawdy boys run riot on high seas as fags stir emotions of rollicking rovers.” Alternately, reading blow in this way also provides the possible reading that the chantey text is solely a collective, scopofilic sexual encounter shared between the men (and, through sharing this fantastic encounter, the men are “blown away”). I will venture the argument that the narrative of this sea chantey, coupled with the warning that comes at the end of the song, ultimately serve as a means through which sailors turn each other away from the temptations on land and focus them back on the ship and their sailing brothers.
Next month, I plan to look at the first four stanzas of this version of “Blow the Man Down” and I look forward to hearing thoughts and suggestions.
[i] Frederick Pease Harlowe, Chanteying Aboard American Ships, (Connecticut: Mystic Seaport, 2004), 92.
[ii] In the following phrases, it is clear that the bull is to be seen as something powerful and even reckless: “In phrases (mostly proverbial): †he may bear a bull that hath borne a calf, in allusion to the story of Milo of Crotona (see quot.). a bull in a china shop: the symbol of one who produces reckless destruction. to take the bull by the horns: to meet a difficulty with courage. to show the bull-horn: to make a show of resistance. (like a) bull at a (five-barred) gate: with direct violence or impetuosity; so bull-at-a-gate, used attrib. to describe a direct and vigorous attack.”
[iii] Joanna Colcord, Songs of the American Sailormen, (New York: Oak Publications, 1964), 49.
[iv] Charles Tyng, Before the Wind: The Memoir of an American Sea Captain, 1808-1833, ed. Susan Fels, (New York: Penguin Books, 1999) 88.
[v] Greg Denning, Mr Bligh’s Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) 73.
[vi] Marcus Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, 217. It is worth noting that Rediker quotes material that uses the term bullying, hearkening back to the refrain of the chantey.
[vii] Dening, Mr Bligh’s Bad Language, 23.
[viii] Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 20 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. Also available at http://www.oed.com/.