This is an old English halyard chantey, sung as a work song. I suppose it’s an odd fit for one of my “family tree of a folk song” posts, but what the hell.

Sting does a kick-ass rendition on the 2006 Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys, which is actually a cool 2-disk album and worth owning; it has a lot of really good tracks, and a few really *great* tracks on it (including a brilliant “Fire Down Below” by Nick Cave, a beautiful “Rolling Sea” by Eliza McCarthy, and a hilarious “Good Ship Venus” by Loudon Wainwright, with absolutely unprintable lyrics).  Why Tom Waits isn’t on it is beyond me. This is an odd record, and I don’t think I know anybody else who owns it.  It’s likely to be unknown even to many die-hard Sting fans. But that’s a shame, because this is a great version of Blood Red Roses, and the Grand Old Man of Pop, who has seemed Quite Serious lately with his John Dowland and such, appears to be having a rollicking time with this song.

As Roger McGuinn writes at the Folk Den blog on chanteys in practice, the words could and did change to suit the occasion, wit of the chantey singer, and task at hand, but the “response” part the call-and-response pieces like this would stay the same. I suppose one of the reasons I might like this song so much is because it reminds me of calling cadence in the army. When you were in charge of calling cadence as the unit ran in formation, the “chorus” or “response” part echoed by the unit didn’t vary, but the clever or brave could create and/or modify traditional lines and verses in the “call” portion, allowing room for parody and a sort of authorized or protected “roasting.” (“Captain Smith ain’t got no socks, I seen him when he took ’em off, they jumped up on the chair, demanded voting rights and welfare.”) You could sneak in barbs about the captain or the first sergeant (or some recent event that had befallen a fellow soldier in his or her love life) as long as it fit the cadence, everybody stayed in step, and you didn’t run out of breath while running uphill. Those army running cadences would be a whole ‘nother topic and area of research, but there are similarities, anyway, with these types of “work songs.”

Here’s the Mudcat Cafe thread on Blood Red Roses.  Nobody can really say for sure what the song is about, but getting at that is a problem anyway since there are so many versions and iterations and it has probably “meant” many things at many different times (and the usual singers didn’t give much of a crap anyway as long as the rhythm was right for the job at hand). But this thread will give you a crash course in the various controversies and theories – the “blood red roses” are redcoats, or blisters, or harpooned whales, or sores caused by venereal disease, or…

Because the thread is so very long, and in places hard to wade through because one contributor in particular is being a dick, I’ll reproduce one especially useful comment and question here, from “Guest, Gibb” on 15 Feb 2009:

My attempt to put together a chronology of sources for this chantey:

1. 1879, Captain R.C. Adams, ON BOARD THE ROCKET, gives the chorus (no tune) of “Come Down, you bunch of roses”

2. 1935, an Alan Lomax recording made in the Bahamas, “Come Down, You Roses”

3. 1951 Doerflinger, SHANTYMEN AND SHANTYBOYS, prints a text and melody for “Come Down, You Bunch of Roses.” Whereas other chanteys in his collection are from recordings he made in New York, this one, which he calls “very rare,” he got from an 1893 manuscript of a notation of a sailor from Mass. He had never seen nor heard this chantey otherwise.

…So far, no “Blood Red Roses”. And it’s “Come Down,” not “Go Down” (the meaning of the latter was the subject of another Mudcat thread). Then…

4. 1956 A.L. Lloyd appears in the film MOBY DECK performing a very excellent chantey: “Go Down, You Blood Red Roses.” The solo verses are standard chantey fare. His tune matches Doerflinger’s book, which he would have had access to. In the same year, he recorded it on an album THE SINGING SAILOR. Other folk revival singers follow suit, such as Paul Clayton who recorded it the same way in 1956 on an album in reference to the Moby Dick theme. (Perhaps the idea that “blood red roses” has something to do with whaling comes from this association.)

5. 1961, Stan Hugill, SHANTIES FROM THE SEVEN SEAS. This one has the original refrain, “Come down, ye bunch o’ roses.” He gives an alternate ~title~ as “Blood Red Roses,” but this would seem to be the influence of his having seen/heard both of the AL Lloyd recordings (which he mentions). His version actually comes from the Barbadian chanteyman Harding. It’s tune is a bit different from the Doerflinger/Lloyd tune.

6. 1962, an Alan Lomax recording from Trinidad or school girls singing “Coming Down with a Bunch of Roses” It’s a play song, not a chantey, but other play songs of the Caribbean seem to have shared their source with chanteys (e.g. “Little Sally Rackett”).

7. 1969, Stan Hugill, SHANTIES AND SAILORS’ SONGS. In this book, he has now switched over to “Blood Red Roses” (also preferring, “Hang Down”). His transcription of the tune has miraculously changed now to pretty much match the Doerflinger/Lloyd tune. Plus, all over the book he keeps mentioning “Blood Red Roses” as supposed evidence that this chantey came into being in the 18th century, that it was all about Napoleon, etc.

8. 1972, Doerflinger, SONGS OF THE SAILOR AND LUMBERMAN. This is the revised edition of his 1951 text. In the appendix, he has a note: “I doubt that the movie version, with a “blood-red roses” chorus, is authentic folklore.” The reference is obviously to the spurious versions spawned by Moby Dick.

So, a question and a comment:

Does anyone have any source with “blood red roses” that pre-dates 1956 (Lloyd)? Bert Lloyd did ship on a whaler for a period; the question would be whether he got the bloody ruddy chorus from the oral tradition, or if he contrived what is now our ~new~ oral tradition?

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last link check: 20 May 2013

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