20 February 2012

#88 Donkey Riding

A donkey engine does its work without a chorus…
(W. Clark Russell, The Romance of Jenny Harlowe, 1889)

This chanty is essentially a variation of “Hieland Laddie” that has obtained its own identity, I think, in the modern era. Very little historical info exists about it.

The “donkey” is nowadays popularly "understood" to refer to a “donkey engine” or steam donkey, which was a steam-powered winch that came into use aboard some ships (according to my brief research) by the late 1850s. Such was one of the devices that took the “manual” out of labor and, eventually, would be said to spell the end of chanties. “Riding on a donkey” is interpreted as letting the donkey engine do the work, and as such seems to have been a humorous parody. Perhaps sailors, working the old fashioned way, wished they could be “riding on a donkey”! However, there is no real evidence for any of this.

F.P. Harlow, an American sailor of the 1870s, mentions “Riding on a Donkey” in his Chanteying Aboard American Ships (1962). Now, there is some confusion about what Harlow actually experienced all those years earlier and what he re-imagined in the interim. So here he says that a shipmate named Brooks sang the chanty at the halyards, but the version he presents is credited to a Capt. J.L. Botterill of the barque Samantha. Botterill evidently sang a number of chanties to Harlow in the 1930s.

Stan Hugill, in his Shanties from the Seven Seas, is the only other I know to describe this chanty. He says it was popular among timber droghers  in Liverpool and Canadian ports, and he learned it from a shipmate named Spike Sennit. Hugill also notes that the song appeared in the Oxford Song Book (Vol. II, by Thomas Wood, 1928), but I have not seen that—will have to track down a copy.
[Edit, May 12: Thanks to the kindness of Charles Biada, I have been able to see this. It's immediately recognizable as the source of the popular "children's" version of the song. There are three verses, which the author got from a Walter Raby. I presume Raby also gave the author the info that it was sung in timber ships and schooner between Liverpool and Canada circa 1890s.]

Here's my rendition. For a complicated reason, I did not get around to recording myself singing it until the end of the project, and it is the very last of Hugill's chanties that I did. [This is actually an edit I am making on 30 March 2012. This blog post was first made on 20 Feb.]

In addition, I made this great recording of the Mystic Seaport squad at work at the capstan during the Sea Music Festival of 2009. It was so good that I asked if I could post it; I feel it's one of the few great examples of chantying at the capstan that one can find on-line.

Playing hong-ki-kong,

Ranzo :{


  1. 30 March: My rendition has now been recorded and added to this post.

  2. Hi Ranzo,

    I've asked my university library system to hall the Wood book out of their off-campus storage facility. If you still need a look at those pages, I'll be glad to scan them and send them your way in the next few weeks.

    - Charles

  3. Hey Charles,

    That sounds excellent!!

    I'm not sure why this book is so hard to get a hold of.

    I believe there is at least one other chanty in that collection, too. And it would be nice to see any introductory notes (if there) that might contextualize the collection or give a hint what they used for sources.

    You can get in touch at : gabbahshareef AT yahoo DOT com.