Bully in the Alley

A really popular chantey although sung more like a forebitter or a music hall song by most performers.  Both Tim and Rick alternatively perform this song with their own variations, as is traditional.  It’s origins are somewhat obscure due to various theories about the lyrics, sometimes placing the song as a Caribbean island source.  “So help me Bob, I’m Bully in the Alley” is the one most often misinterpreted with a wide range of explanations… However, some search into 19th century vernacular usage of American English would sometimes show the word “bully” to be one of many slang words to equal “drunk” or “shitfaced”, but in a “good” fashion, such as “I’m feeling good”, or, “I’m feeling no pain”; it has been pointed out to me that Teddy Roosevelt used “Bully!” to mean “splendid!” and that Mark Twain had written “That’s Bully” to mean “that’s fine” or “top notch”, and “I’m bully” to mean… Well, you get the point.  Of all the explanations in this regard I’ve found, the best worded version, in my opinion, is from Hank Cramer, in which, for this song, he wrote – “While ashore, sailors did like to go out drinking, usually in groups. And they may not all have the same capacity for drink, leading to one sailor becoming incapacitated, or “bully”, while his mates were still willing to party on. Until they were all ready to go back to the ship, they would have to stash their mate someplace safe and out of the way — like the alley.”   Here is a portion of an article published in 1865 showing “bully” in context…

“Shinbone Al”, on the other hand, was the common reference to Shinbone Alley in New York… Whether it was this alley or in another place, I cannot tell – [there’s even a “Shinebone Alley” between two rows of the older buildings in Sailor’s Snug Harbor, Staten Island, NY].  It is interesting, though, that it runs near and along such other sea-song-mentioned streets such as Bleecker Street, Bond Street, and Great Jones Street.  Click ‘ere for a map – see #11

19th century photo of Shinebone Al(ley)

19th century photo of Shinebone Al(ley)

 

Chorus:
So help me Bob I’m bully in the alley.
Way, (way!) hey, (hey!) bully in the alley.
Help me Bob I’m bully in the alley.
Bully down in Shinbone Al.

Sally is a girl that I loved dearly,
Way, hey, bully in the alley
Sally is a girl that I spliced nearly,
Bully down in Shinbone Al

Chorus:

For seven long years I courted Sally,
All she did was dilly-dally,

Chorus:

I left Sal and I went a-sailing.
Signed on a big ship, I went a-whaling,

Chorus:

I’ll leave Sal and I’ll become a sailor,
I’ll leave Sal and ship aboard a whaler.

Chorus:

I’ll come back and I’ll marry Sally,
We’ll have kids and count them by the tally.

Chorus:

{If I ever get back to her I’ll marry little Sally.
Have six kids and live in Shinbone Alley}

Chorus:

{I thought I heard the old man saying,
One more chorus then we’re belaying,}

Chorus:

13 thoughts on “Bully in the Alley

  1. John

    What is the meaning of the word spliced in the phrase, “Sally is agirl that I spliced nearly,”?

    Reply
    1. B. Rock

      “Tieing the knot” would be for a lubber that didn’t know how to properly splice a rope.

      Reply
      1. JosMorn Post author

        Not sure where tying the knot comes into the song, but your point is taken on its own merits.

        Reply
  2. JosMorn Post author

    Consider it “sailor speak” for sexual relations without getting graphic, and in this case, an activity thwarted.

    Reply
    1. Robert

      Actually that’s a common misconception. Spliced means married. It’s not inherently vulgar although, like everything else, I suppose it could be.

      Reply
      1. JosMorn Post author

        You know, now that you say that, it makes very good sense in this context… Although with all the other double-entendres to be found on so many of these songs, I’ll go with both!

        Reply
      2. Topman

        I have to agree with Robert. Splicing is the joining of two ends of a different line into one, hence “marriage”.

        Reply
        1. JosMorn Post author

          I have come to agree as well with time and other corroborating evidence. It makes far more sense, now.

          Reply
    2. Stuart Markus

      I think it might also be slang for Marry — after all, he courted her and still hope to have kids with her.
      Splice — as in to be joined or be mated to.

      On the other hand, if he were that drunk, he may have been unable to do either…

      Reply
      1. JosMorn Post author

        Nah… The chorus seems almost incidental to the story of the verse; as though one was composed separately and then later the adventure was added. The chorus then becomes the condition and it doesn’t translate. An etymological and metaphorical search for the term in 19th century vernacular does not show any link to being “Bully in the Alley” with marriage condition, based on my research as I was trying to be quite specific as to what that term might be. The conclusion I drew was from the collected evidence rather than me trying to prove a theory I already held. It was prompted by two explanations by other people I heard that simply made me guffaw… One person sang “So help me Bob, there’s a bully in the alley”, which is not how it appears in any of the early transcriptions of the song, and another claim that it refers to a specific condition of sails aboard a vessel, which it does not after about two years of pouring through quite a collection of sea going terms, slang, sayings, technical terms for the period of the 18th century through today.

        On the other hand, I am simply making an argument based on a logical conclusion of the evidence gathered. Anyone can and will decide on their own. But I tend to be wary of too many conclusions in dating a song from the text or in reading too much into what the verses might mean. Tommy Makem has composed several songs that people still insist to the this day are 100 yrs old or more, and while Kevin Brown composed a delightful song – “This Dreadful Life” – that has been fairly recently referred to as either a “traditional” song or “an example of a mid-19th century lyrical verse collected from a sailor’s memoir”, that self same person went on to explain that the song was in fact NOT about a sailor musing on why he goes to sea and then concluding with why he’s decided to drop it all and stay home, but in fact is an intentional metaphor of the human condition and the stages of life. I went up to the woman later and quietly explained who wrote it and what he was saying, and she scowled at me and asked what my degree was, then moved away as though I coughed up a plague.

        Reply
  3. Whit Gardiner

    My FAVORITE song is Bully in the Alley. Anytime I attend your show, I hope you don’t think I’m a pain in the ass for requesting it. Went to the Gris in May (2015) and saw your show and thought you guys were AWESOME! I’ll be back near the end of August with some friends who’ll really appreciate your music. Keep up the good work!

    Reply
    1. JosMorn Post author

      Thank you, Whit! So very glad you enjoy it! Looking forward to your next visit.

      Reply
  4. Alaska Paul

    Enjoying some good Guinness brought in from Fairbanks into this tent camp in the arctic, I taught my mates Bully in the Alley. We had roaring choruses going. The group made me sing all the verses I knew. And then I was out. One more they said. OK. So I made one up on the spot:

    Got tired of Sal, so I married her cousin,
    Way, hey! Bully in the Alley!
    We settled down, had children by the dozen.
    Bully down in Shinbone Al!

    Reply

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