Saturday, November 16, 2013

Debunking The Myth That "Go Down ,You Blood Red Roses" Is An Old Chantey

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part I of a two part series on the Caribbean chantey and children's game "Coming Down With A Bunch Of Roses".

This post focuses on fplkloric research provided online by hultonclint [Guest, Gibb on Mudcat Cafe]. That research debunks the belief that "Go Down, You Blood Red Roses" [BRR] is an actual 19th century chantey.

Part II of this post focuses on the Caribbean game song "Coming Down With A Bunch Of Roses". Click for that post.

The content of this post is presented for folkloric and historical purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.


Come Down, You Bunch o' Roses [364-366] (274-277)

hultonclint, Uploaded on Feb 19, 2009

This tops'l halyard chantey is rare in documentation; I know of only three sources that reflect actual use in the days of sail.

On the other hand, in the form of "Blood Red Roses," since the mid-50s Folk Revival a new form of it has been popularized. Many have wondered what the "Blood Red Roses" is meant to signify; my argument is that that phrase was probably never a part of the chantey, or if so it was an idiosyncratic variant or mishearing. Here's a timeline, as best as I can tell, for the life of this chantey as a documented piece (originally posted on

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." This is the same set of recordings from which folkies got "Sloop John B." and "Bay of Mexico." Wonder why they didnt get this one?

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 (Silsbee) 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". Then...

4. 1956 A.L. Lloyd appears in the film MOBY DICK performing "Go Down, You Blood Red Roses." The solo verses are standard chantey fare. [1:07-1:47]

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.

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.

Because I cannot find it recorded anywhere by anyone, I am singing the tune as printed in Hugill's original text (from chanteyman Harding). The end of the video has brief snips (so as not to infringe copyright) of the two Caribbean recordings.

As for the meaning of the "Bunch of roses," I'm inclined to think it is an address for a sweetheart, but that is just speculation.
The solo verses relate generally to the saltpeter trade, 'round the Horn to Chile & Peru.

Please check out the whole chanteys project playlist, at
A brief 1935 sound clip from the Bahamas of "Come Down Ye Bunch Of Roses” is included beginning at 4:11 of this post. And a brief clip of the singing game from Alan Lomax's 1962 book Brown Girl In The Ring recording [which is featured in Part II of this post] is found at beginning at 4:23 of this video.

Here's my briefer summarization of the point that hultonclint listed above and which he gave in much more detail in a number of comments on this Mudcat folk music discussion thread: "Blood Red Roses".

Bert Lloyd sang a chantey with the refrain "Go Down Ye Blood Red Roses" in the 1956 American movie Moby Dick. That song was previously known-as early as 1879- in the Caribbean as the chantey and children’s singing game "Coming Down with a Bunch Of Roses” or "Come Down, You Roses”.

Lloyd’s change in lyrics was repeated by others in performances and print. The "Go down ye Blood red roses” title became so widespread in folk & shanty circles that “Blood Red Roses” is considered as an old shanty*. And folkies, chantey singers, and fans of chantey music spend a lot of time debating the meaning of what the phrase "blood red roses mean”, never realizing that the words "blood" and "red" were Lloyd's revision to that song, and not the "original" words.

* For instance, Alan Lomax described "Go Down, You Blood Red Roses" in his 1962 book on Caribbean children's singing games Brown Girl In The Ring as a "rare and beautiful British chantey". [p. 17].
hultonclint speculates that the phrase "bunch of roses" in the chantey "Coming Down With A Bunch Of Roses" may have been a term of endearment. It seems quite pausible to me that pretty females or a sweetheart could have been referred to as a "bunch of roses". However, in the "Coming Down With A Bunch Of Roses" children's singing game, I believe that phrase may also have referred to girls walking down the row between parallel lines ["coming down" the row-or as African Ameericans refer to it-walking down the alley]* carrying a bunch of roses. More comments about that singing game can be found in Part II of this series.

*The Soul Train line is a popular example of the "walking down the alley" format.

Here's one example of a 1930 "Come Down" chantey that is related to the "Coming Down, You Roses" example:

Subject: RE: Origins: Blood Red Roses (what's it mean?) "Blood Red Roses".
From:Charley Noble
Date: 07 Jan 10 - 08:51 PM

"I just ran across a variant verse of this old shanty in Gordon Grant's book SAIL HO!: Windjammer Sketches Alow and Aloft, pubished by William Farquhar Payson, New York, © 1930, p. 16:

Ho, Molly come down,
Come down with your pretty posey,
Come down with your cheeks so rosy,
Ho, Molly, come down
He O! He O!

Grant who sailed aboard the Balclutha in 1925 describes this song being used for "swaying off":

"They have set the main topgallant staysail. In order to stretch it taut along the stay one man takes a turn under the belaying pin; the other two stand on the fife rail, grasp the halliards, and "sway off," putting all the weight into it. As they bend their knees, the slack is taken up on the pin and the process repeated."

Thanks to hultonclint [Guest, Gibb] for his research on this subject, and his publication of videos of & information about that chantey and other chanties on YouTube & on Mudcat. Thanks also to Charley Noble and other commenters on that Mudcat Cafe discussion thread.

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