Blood Red Roses

BLOOD RED ROSES  is a halyard chantey sometimes called “Bunch o’ Roses” or some variant.  There has been much speculation as to just what the “blood red roses” were as well as the “pinks and posies”; one source speculates that it is an imagery of the bubbling blood of a dying whale as they hauled the kill alongside.  Another suggests that the sailors were making sport of the Marines on board as they aided in hauling the kill, but one would never find Royal Marines working a whaling ship so that’s out.  Stan Hugill wrote that this song was popular not only in Liverpool ships but also among Yankee ships and that it likely derived from an English song regarding Napoleon and British soldiers, or “redcoats”.  One does find tunes and songs relating to Napoleon and the “Bonny Bunch of Roses O”, but but the evidence for this song is not there and on a personal note I suspect that the point of the song is a bit grittier… I have found in numerous references dating to the 18th and early 19th century of men being taunted in military and maritime situations by either being called out as “whores” and “whoresons” and variants, or as “pansies”, “pinks”, “posies”, and even “roses”… not unlike experienced soldiers and sailors of recent days taunting “green” recruits.  So my theory is that as the whole crew did the work, they still found humour in taunting the “green” or inexperienced hands.  All circumstantial, I freely admit, but it still seems the best fit… It is doubtful that every work song shipboard is the result of literary musings or elevated thought, so there ya go!

Jos. Morneault


Our boots and clothes are all in pawn
Go down, you blood red roses, Go down!
And it’s mighty drafty ’round Cape Horn,
Go down, you blood red roses, Go down!

cho: Oh, you pinks and posies!
Go down, you blood red roses, Go down!  

For it’s ’round Cape Horn we all must go
For that is where them whalefish blow.

*Sing out me boys, and pull plus fort
Around Cape Stiff through the frost and snow.

*My dear old father said to me,
Oh son, you’re a fool for to follow the sea!

** “The topmen up,” the mate he roars!
“It’s lay aloft you lazy whores!”

***The gals are waitin’ straight ahead.
A long strong pull should shift the dead!

Now pull ‘er taut and that’ll do
For we’re the boys to kick ‘er through!

*Verses I wrote or rearranged in order to lengthen the song and to differentiate from similar lines utilized in other chanteys.
** Gratitude to Danny Spooner for this verse.
*** I composed this verse on the fly when singing with a group of friends when we rotated verses, each having to remember one.  This was in the early ’90s.  I’ve heard several performers sing this line after I had performed it for several years, and when I thanked them for covering my verse, the response was always, “I thought that it was traditional!” In one case, the performer was assertive in his response that it is the way he “has always sang it”, and would not hear of it being a recent addition to the song.  All I can do is accept that it appears to have moved into “tradition”.

5 thoughts on “Blood Red Roses

  1. Jeff Balke

    Sorry if this is rather long but there has been quite a lot of research done on Blood-Red Roses, mainly on the Mudcat website.
    Anyone who has a copy of Stan Hugill’s Shanties from the Seven Seas will know that he has two versions of this halyard shanty, which he called Bunch o’ Roses with Blood-Red Roses as an alternative title. They are not particularly close variations but are definitely related. Hugill tells us that it was popular with both American and British crews (especially in Liverpool ships), and was sung by a black crew of the ship Rocket, as mentioned by Robert C. Adams in his book On board the “Rocket” (1879). Hugill’s first version was from a Barbadian singer he called simply Harding, and he published it with ten verses, several of which are now sung in what I call the ‘standard’ version, i.e. the one every shanty enthusiast now knows. He noted that the refrain was variously “Come down”, “Hang down”, or “Go down”.

    Mr Harding’s shanty (transposed from D) began :-

    Hugill’s second example is more or less our standard version as far as the tune goes, but his text (of five verses) is different, with a couple of verses from other shanties. This isn’t surprising as I imagine that shantymen often sang the first words that came into their heads as long as they fitted the rhythm of the haul, and I think it’s a mistake to assume that every shanty had a specific text, although they obviously had a usual set of words.

    Note that the second half was repeated, a feature I don’t think I’ve come across. Hugill said that the repeats were sometimes omitted. We know that Hugill actually heard the shanty sung somewhere because he remarked “I have also heard it started This is the day we haul away, / Soon we haul across the bay.”

    Hugill got the verses for this shanty, the ‘standard’ version, from a manuscript collection compiled by a Massachusetts sailor named Nathaniel Silsbee, whose version of Blood-Red Roses was published by William Main Doerflinger in Shantymen and Shantyboys (1951) under the title Come Down, You Bunch of Roses. Doerflinger thought (presumably because he knew when Nathaniel went to sea) that it dated to the 1880s and remarked that it he had never seen it in print. Presumably it was rarely sung, or perhaps, like the sugar-loading worksongs of the Esequibo River, was highly localised for some reason. Hugill also printed the first verse of a related shanty he called Ho Molly, but unfortunately didn’t have its tune. It went :-

    Ho Molly come down, / Come down with your pretty posy, / Come down with your cheeks so rosy, / Chorus Ho Molly, come down. He O! He O!

    So, do we have any indications of where Bunch of Roses/ Blood-Red Roses came from? Stan Hugill doubted that its origin was in the Caribbean shanty tradition, believing (it seems only because of the mention of bunches of roses) that it derived from an English folk song, though he could not name a possible ancestor. (He mentioned Bonaparte, but could surely not have been thinking of The Bonny Bunch of Roses-o.) Admittedly, the use of “bonny”, a word from Scotland and the north of England (meaning “pretty, good-looking”) in a Caribbean shanty is striking, but in fact Blood-Red Roses probably did originate there, specifically in Trinidad and Tobago where children sang related songs with names such as Come Down, You Roses and Coming Down with a Bunch of Roses. These songs were part of dancing games played by boys and girls, and also by adults at wakes. This connection was revealed in a Mudcat thread some years ago, and the blog by researcher Azizi Powell gives a number of examples of Caribbean children’s games which use roses (though not “blood-red”) as part of their traditional verses. It is not at all improbable that this kind of wording was taken up by shantymen from Trinidad and Tobago; quite the reverse, for we know that all shantymen were extremely inclusive in their choices of tune and/or words when they suited their purposes. For instance, Chanteying Aboard American Ships by F. P. Harlow includes a sing-out (reprinted in Shanties from the Seven Seas) with the line “Come down with your bunch of roses”, as follows :-

    It seems that one of these children’s songs was re-cast as choruses by Caribbean shantymen, Mr Harding’s Bunch o’ Roses, our standard Blood-Red Roses, and Ho Molly being the known results.

    Shanties of the Bunch o’ Roses family, though apparently not often sung at sea, came to the attention of Revival singers with the release of the movie Moby Dick in 1956, in which Blood-Red Roses was sung by Bert Lloyd. Lloyd had recorded it the previous year on his LP The Singing Sailor using what is now the standard tune. His source must have been Nathaniel Silsbee via Doerflinger four years previously. Moby Dick brought it to the attention of other singers and folklorists in a way that Doerflinger’s book had not. However, it has to be said that in Doerflinger’s 1971 revised edition of Shantymen and Shantyboys (called Songs of the Sailor and Lumberman) he doubts “that the movie version with a blood-red roses chorus is authentic folklore”. That sailors had sung shanties like Bunch o’ Roses is not in question, so presumably he meant that they didn’t sing “blood-red”. That must have been a typical invention by Bert Lloyd.

    There are many theories about the song’s origin which disregard the perfectly feasible Caribbean children’s songs and speculate about what “blood-red roses” might mean in the context of seafaring. Various origins – sunsets, British redcoat marines (Hugill’s theory), blood in a harpooned whale’s blow, red-lined boots, symptoms of syphilis – have been put forward. My personal view is that Lloyd simply thought “blood-red roses” was a phrase with much more impact than a mere “bunch of roses”. And why did shantymen keep “pinks and posies”? It rhymes, which was a major consideration for a shantyman, and is amusingly insulting in a way which might have got the gang to put a little more effort into their haul.

  2. karl william liebhardt

    I have to think it was the bloody blowhole on the whale. Perhaps after a harpoon it starts out very red and becomes pinker as the heart stops beating and it mixes with water. By the time the pinks and posies go down, they can relax and haul the poor thing in. There is something atavistic, ancient and cruel in the image of flowery life actually representing death for a great and intelligent creature.

    1. JosMorn Post author

      This has been proposed before and eventually dismissed by a group of us discussing the song for whaling versus other vessels. The imagery shows up in non-chantey (army and maritime) sources for belittling “new hands” while not one of the specialists in whaling data could find anything similar in song or poetry that would actually cause one to consider this chorus of this song to indicate that. What’s more, is that some earlier historians had found this as a work-song on merchant vessels before it migrated to its association with – and so the verses we have come to know today – whaling; the chorus is all that appears to have survived but for minor references in older writings, as is part of the “folk process”. Most of this was “dug up” by others in the field, so I cannot claim credit for the general conclusion.

  3. Sam Navarro

    Blood red roses

    I can not see previous comments so please forgive me if this is a repeat.

    Who is being called blood red roses and why?

    Look at the context and think of who the men are, where they are and what they are doing.

    Now read:

    “Sing out me boys, and pull plus fort
    Around Cape Stiff and through the frost and snow.

    They are sailing around Cape Stiff, a name describing the strong stiff breeze, which lays between home and the whaling seas.
    The weather is bone cold. The experienced sailers know this pain, the inescapable bitter wind driven sting of snow and ice, for which their clothing ill protects them. All their extremities – noses, cheeks, ears, finger tips- are bitten by the cold until their skin is frozen to numbness. In these conditions they work and bleed. The only protection is hard labor to keep moving and everything they touch is cold stiff abrasive. The new hands don’t know the tricks of the game; they don’t know the secrets of how best to survive this bitter crossing. The men are blood red roses because their overexposed bodies resemble the blood red rose in appearance. They work hard to keep the breeze and make passage a fast as possible.

    1. JosMorn Post author

      Hello Sam,

      Yes, I have heard this theory as well, but it doesn’t hold up against the vernacular of the period… What you describe would be more in keeping with a genteel interpretation of more polite society for gentle ears of the ladies or for children, and not the manner of imagery utilized by rough sailors or soldiers even in our current PC world. Additionally, the song was not sung solely in cold climates, so the theory folds a bit more, not to mention the chorus going on to call the men “pinks and posies”, common put-downs and jabs used against men throughout the 19th century. And again, in reading various novels and letters from the 19th century, one too often finds men being driven to work harder (or even taunted) by older, more experienced men who refer to the newer, younger men in disparaging language such as referring to them as “hitting like a girl” and “my sister can work harder than that” and variations on that theme, essentially verbally emasculating the men – until those men prove themselves or even despite it! However, I chose to see the song in historical context and not give value to what I feel is really being said – much like those songs in which someone is killed or a man beats his wife; I don’t endorse it or agree with it, but I see the colour of it from afar and apart, much like reading a good novel.

      I appreciate your interest and thank you for your comment!


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