Alabama John Cherokee

Tim sings this one and it has gained in popularity amongst our crowd of late.  It’s a halyard chantey, which is to say it was for the raising of the yard for the setting of the sail; a heavy task in high winds or dirty weather.  The pull or “heave” by the crew comes on the down beat of the chorus = ALabama JOhn Cherokee! and then the WAY haay YA! (unnh) I was always amused at the idea of a Cherokee allegedly from Alabama (the Cherokee had come from around the Carolinas and Tennessee but largely removed in the 1830s to live in Arkansas and parts of what is now Oklahoma by the time the chantey was supposed to have been written), and that in one verse it is said that he came “from Miramachi”, a region from the north-east part of New Brunswick, Canada (not far from my family home area)… The statement that he had been a slave “down in Alabam’ ” notwithstanding.  Stan Hugill doesn’t offer much for its source but some historians believe that it dates from around the 1840s, and certainly during the time of black and non-white slavery of the American south and the Caribbean.

Tim does not sing the final verse but I thought I’d include it as it seems to round out the ghost story rather well…

Jos. Morneault

 

Well, this is a story of John Cherokee
Alabama John Cherokee
An Indian man from Miramachi
Alabama John Cherokee

CHORUS
Waayy haay YA! (Unhh) Alabama John Cherokee

Now John Cherokee was an Indian man
Alabama John Cherokee 
They made him a slave down in Alabam’
Alabama John Cherokee

CHORUS

Well, they put him aboard a whaling ship
Alabama John Cherokee 
And again and again he gave them the slip
Alabama John Cherokee

CHORUS

Well, they caught him again and they chained him tight
Alabama John Cherokee 
And they put him in the hold without any light
Alabama John Cherokee

CHORUS

He had nothing to eat and nothing to drink
Alabama John Cherokee
Until his bones began to clink
Alabama John Cherokee

CHORUS

Gave him nothing to eat and nothing to drink
Alabama John Cherokee 
Until he dropped dead at the Captain’s feet
Alabama John Cherokee

CHORUS

And now his ghost, it can be seen
Alabama John Cherokee
Sitting on the main truck, all slimy and green
Alabama John Cherokee

CHORUS

At the break of dawn he goes below
Alabama John Cherokee
And that is when the rooster crows
Alabama John Cherokee

CHORUS

2 thoughts on “Alabama John Cherokee

  1. Stuart Markus

    I think this song may pertain to one particularly awful aspect of slavery in the U.S. — as if it weren’t awful enough, a free Black man had to fear that if he were to visit the border states (MD, DE, KY, MO) or below, he might be kidnapped and sold into slavery somewhere in the south, with no way to communicate with his family or friends who might come to free him. Recall the movie (and book) ‘Twelve Years a Slave,’ written about (and by) Solomon Northrop, a prominent Black fiddle player in Boston who traveled to DC for a gig and spent over a decade enslaved.

    Not hard to imagine a dark-skinned American Indian (there certainly was intermarriage between the groups) facing a similar fate, and being “rented out” (for lack of a better term) to a sailing ship during the off season, as was not an uncommon practice either.

    Reply

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