I noted in my last post how “Roll the Cotton Down,” though it is reasonably common in the historical record of chanty-singing, seems not so commonly sung in the Revival. I speculated the reason was due to recent audiences’ lack of interest in the type of lyrics it has. By contrast, “Roll, Alabama, Roll,” though a similar and possibly related chanty, was not widely attested, and yet is sung more often now. I would guess it is because of the narrative (ballad-like) quality of its lyrics, and their more neutral connotations for modern audiences. Yet “Roll Alabama” is also more limited, since its lyrics would seem to always have to be about the story it tells, whereas “Roll the Cotton” can be fitted with any lyric.
“Roll, Alabama, Roll” is about the celebrated Confederate ship Alabama. She was built by the Laird company in Birkenhead (across from Liverpool), England and sailed under Captain Semmes. Her successful career came to an end off Cherbourg, France in 1864, where she was defeated by the Union’s Kearsarge, under Captain Winslow.
A book review from 1903 seems to be the first to mention the song, by name (The Anthenaeum, no. 3929, 14 Feb. 1903).
Joanna Colcord (1924) collected a fragment of the song from her sea captain father:
When the Alabama's keel was laid,
Roll, Alabama, Roll!
They laid her keel at Birkenhead,
Oh, roll, Alabama, roll!
Oh, she was built in Birkenhead,
Built in the yard of Jonathan Laird,
Away down the Mersey she rolled one day,
And across the "Western" she ploughed her way.
Doerflinger (1951) next went on to supply a version, collected from Dick Maitland. Maitland had learned it aboard the schoolship Mercury ca. 1870/71, and said it was sung at both halyards and pumps.
In eighteen hundred and sixty-one,
Roll Alabama, roll!
The Alabama's keel was laid,
And roll, Alabama, roll!
Twas laid in the yard of Jonathan Laird
At the town of Birkenhead
At first she was called the 'Two Ninety two'
For the merchants of the city of Liverpool
Put up the money to build the ship,
In the hopes of driving the commerce from the sea.
Down the Mersey she sailed one day
To the port of Fayal in the Western Isles.
There she refitted with men and guns,
and sailed across the Western Sea,
With orders to sink, burn and destroy
all ships belonging to the North.
Till one day in the harbor of Cherbourg she laid,
And the little Kearsarge was waiting there.
And the Kearsarge with Winslow was waiting there,
And Winslow challenged them to fight at sea.
Outside the three mile limit they fought (repeat)
Till a shot from the forward pivot that day
Took the Alabama's steering gear away
And at the Kearsarge's mercy she lay
And Semmes escaped on a British yacht.
The only other mention I know of is Stan Hugill’s in Shanties from the Seven Seas (1961). Perhaps suggesting that he had never sung it himself at sea, he says that he got his version in 1925 from an old Kiwi woman who claimed to be the wife of a crewmember of the Alabama.
Revival renditions, for example this one by the X Seamen's Institute in 1973, tend to have a set of lyrics which appears to have some common source, though it is none of the versions in print that I have listed. I would guess that it is a personal set of lyrics that a Revival artist worked up, and which was subsequently copied. My theory is that it happened as follows. Hermes Nye recorded an album of Ballads of the Civil War for Folkways in 1954. Nye’s version of “Roll, Alabama, Roll” includes the now-familiar lyrics. But where would they have come from? Did Nye have some special access to a traditional singer’s version if the chanty, which had not appeared in the sources we know? Unlikely. If one compares these lyrics to those in Doerflinger’s recent (1951) book, one can see how they might have been worked up as a more elegant and fully rhyming adaptation of Dick Maitland’s rather incidental version. Indeed, the album also included, for some reason, a rendition of the chanty “Santa Anna.” And whose version of that song was it? Dick Maitland’s. Nye’s recording can be sampled here.
Nye’s is also the melody used for most Revival renditions. I have only heard the melody from Hugill’s text on a recording by The Critic's Group (Ewan MacColl and company), on As We Were A-sailing (1970), though they used the lyrics from Nye.
For some reason, perhaps in imitation of one rendition at a later point, the now “standard” Revival versions tend to sing the song in a rubato style, with a fast patter on the solo and lethargic refrains. I don’t know what that’s all about, but it makes little sense that this and not other halyard chanties should be sung that way. Peter Bellamy and Louis Killen’s recording of 1971, on Won’t You Go My Way?, is the earliest I have heard with this feature. I am guessing they may have popularized it.
I visited Mobile, Alabama a few years back, where I went to the maritime museum there. There was a little display/exhibit on the Alabama—kind of irrelevant, because the war ship never visited the U.S. South! What’s more, there was a button you could push and hear a recording of this chanty!