Saturday, May 29, 2010

More sloop

The Sloop John B has had a fine run in pop music, as evidenced by my previous post. But it's a traditional song - and from the Caribbean, which is less common for songs we sang at Camp Ajawah. Nassau town refers to the Bahamas, of course. My main question - was there a real Sheriff John Stone?

The song worked at camp for a number of reasons. The melody is catchy and the lyrics easy to learn. "I want to go home" resonates with the homesickness most campers feel from time to time. The captain's trunk is mentioned, and most campers brought their clothes to camp in a trunk. And who can't help but think of the camp's cook while singing "The poor cook he had fits, ate up all of my grits, then he took and he at up all of my corn." Never had grits at camp, but we did have plenty of corn.

I did find this parody online:

SLOOP JOHN A

We looked for the Sloop John A; We looked for it all day;
Round Nassau Town we did roam,
A man on the pier, Said it wasn't here;
We didn't find it, And then we went home.

Where can the John A be? Maybe the A's at sea;
We had a good look round, Then we went home.
Then we went home, We had to go home.
We didn't find it And then we went home.

The first mate was not there, Maybe he was elsewhere;
Maybe he was on board the Sloop John A;
Wherever he was, We didn't meet him because
We didn't find it, And then we went home.

Where can the John A be? Maybe the A's at sea;
We had a good look round, Then we went home,
Then we went home, We had to go home.
We didn't find it, And then we went home.

The day was a non-event, It seemed the A had went;
Then they told us that there's another called B.
B was OK; I had my heart set on A;
We didn't find it, And then we went home.

Where can the John A be? Maybe the A's at sea;
We had a good look round, Then we went home
Then we went home, We had to go home. I wanna go home.
We didn't find it, And then we went home.

Lyrics: Les Barker, published in 'Sitting With My Dog On Display'.
Recorded by David Knutsen on Tubular Dogs (catalogue no: Dog013)"

Back to the actual song, Carl Sandberg wrote that he was told the "weathered ribs of the historic craft lie imbedded in the sand at Governor's Harbor" in Nassau. Already by 1927 "Time and usage have given this song almost the dignity of a national anthem around Nassau."

Another interesting tidbit: "I've heard from one knowledgeable source that the bad things that happen on that sloop are all the result of naming the boat "John B." In Afro-Caribbean culture, nobody with a surname beginning with "B" (supposedly) will name a son "John," because the result ("John B." sounds too much like "jumby" -- a west African (Wolof/Bambera) term referring to this undead thing we've anglicized to "zombie" -- apparently it won't do to mention these creatures; "speak of the devil," and all that."

The lyrics in versions in the first part of the 20th Century are fairly close to the Beach Boys' version, with slight variations here and there. The Weavers had a hit with the song in the early 1950s. Some versions say "Mr. Johnstone" rather than "Sheriff Johnstone," so it seems unlikely there was really a lawman of that name.

Bob Marley's "I Shot The Sheriff" seems distantly related - both songs are from the Caribbean, feature someone's travails, and have a sheriff. Loose thread, I know...