My Johnny’s Gone to Hilo


Jon says, “I learned this from the McGarrigles so I guess it’s a Canadian version. I also used to sing Tom’s Gone To Hilo but this rather superseded it.” Both names seem to occur in versions of this, although try as I might I can’t get anything definitive about it. It seems that Hilo is the Peruvian port of Ilo (actually pronounced Ee-low apparently), but there seem to be numerous minor lyrical variations and also other very similar songs. I did find this on the sleeve note’s of a Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem CD.

“A halyard shanty often called Tommy’s  Gone to Hilo.” Other versions which state that “Hilo town is in Peru” lend support to the belief that the reference is to the Peruvian port of Ilo and that the shanty may have been popularized in the nitrate trade. (This info I got from one of Paul Clayton’s albums, Days of Moby Dick.)”

If anyone can rootle out any further information, please feel free to add below. I must say the piano also caught me off guard, although I rather like it and it adds a completely different tone that we haven’t experienced on here so far.

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41 Responses to “My Johnny’s Gone to Hilo”

  1. John says:

    I really liked this. And the Tom Waits-like piano accompaniment gives it an especially poignant feel.

  2. John Wigley says:

    Truly lovely. I presume Mr Boden is playing the Joanna? multi-talented beggar!

  3. Shelley says:

    (Ooh, that was a bit harsh.) I rather like the piano, and it’s an interesting treatment of a song form that can tend to be raucous and shouty. I’m being to wonder if there’s anything Jon can’t play.

  4. Andrew Smith says:

    Love the piano sound you’ve achieved on this!

  5. Brian says:

    All I can say about Abigail Simpson is that it would have been better if she had kept comments like that to herself.
    I really enjoyed Jon’s rendition and found the piano accompaniment to be apt.
    If Abigail thinks that Jon is master of no musical talents then she has strange standards. I hope we do not hear from her again. Her comments have left me fuming.

  6. Joanna says:

    Abigails comments tell me only how narrow-minded she is. Jon’s version of this song is just beautiful and so is his piano playing, the sound fitts the song perfectly. A lovely and touching rendition.

  7. Jane Ramsden says:

    Well, I think we can take it it’s not Hilo, Hawaii – home to the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Corporation! But not sure about the nitrate trade in Ilo, Peru, as after ships discharged in Valparaiso, Argentina, nitrate was most frequently loaded in Iquique or Antofagasta, and went back to Europe round Cape Horn. In Ilo, olive agriculture (introduced by the Conquistadores) was the main crop and source of work until the early 1900s.

    But Ilo was a port of call to the ships travelling from the east to the west coast of the United States via Tierra del Fuego. After the building of a pier in the 1800s, international trade flourished in the region. Italians, Chinese, Japanese and Germans settled in Ilo during this time. The building of the Transcontinental Rail Road and the Panama Canal caused commercial activities to decrease and mostly only steamships transporting goods between Peruvian and Chilean ports remained. So maybe some sense depends on less where Johny was going to than where he was going from and why?! And nitrates for fertiliser or for explosives, or some other goods?

    The main economic activities of Ilo city now include fishing and copper mining. Copper mines originally owned by the Southern Peru Copper Corporation (SPCC) have provided several jobs to the region. SPCC was established by the American Smelting and Mining Corporation in the middle of the 20th century. Some Canadians would have heard of Ilo as it was the subject of a Canadian documentary on industrial pollution.

    Here endeth this lesson! Most of the above I Wiki-ed. My partner, who lived in Peru for 7 years, did not know Ilo, though he says he must have driven through or round it, being on the Southernmost coast of Peru. Only has about 70,000 inhabitants though.

    Anyway, I really liked it, Tom Waites-like piano and all! I’m with Shelley, Brian, and now Joanna. Abby, if you have a criticism, please be constructive. Even a master can’t hit perfection every time, especially not to everyone’s ears. I still think ‘a lovely and touching rendition’ about sums it up.

    @ Brian: After a postal glitsch my copy of ‘Stations of the Sun’ has finally arrived. Thanks for the pointer!

  8. Gordon says:

    Thanks Jane, you’ve saved me the trouble of responding to Abigails rather mean spirited comments this morning. They really angered my wife Jo.

    She feels a lot better having read your post that reinforces the comments of Shelly, Brian and Joanna.

    Abigail should rejoice in the fact that the”A Folk Song A Day” Project is a thing of wonder, opening long forgotten “musical doors”.

    Jo spent yesterday looking for her Cecil Sharp book of folk songs, a book she’s had since her school days in Somerset and something she hasn’t thought about for years. Who needs the Tardis when we’ve got Jon Boden and AFSAD?

  9. Maureen Musson says:

    Lovely Jon!

    Maybe Abigail would like to submit a video of whatever she is master of (apart from being obnoxious) so that we can criticise?

  10. Maggie says:

    Really enjoyed the singing and piano

  11. Carole Garland says:

    This was lovely Jon. It had a sad,old feel so unlike the only version I have heard which was of the Fat Bearded Shanty Singer variety.

  12. Tobysails says:

    Love the song and the performance.
    As an old fat grey bearded singer myself I normally sing “Tommy’s gone to Hilo” but must learn this one — a very different and splendid song.
    I was interested by Jane Ramsden’s comments – Hilo, and the Hawiian islands generally, surely were the over wintering and refiitting spot for the northern Pacific whalers. A sailor in the nitrate trade would be back home in several months, one going to Hilo might be away for several years.
    The first verse in the version of “Tommy” that I know…………
    “Oh Tommy’s gone on a whaling ship’
    Away to Hilo
    Oh Tommy’s gone on a damn long trip
    Tom’s gone to Hilo”

  13. Rosie says:

    This was a surprise as I was expecting something completely different!
    Absoloutely lovely, and Folksongaday has got me singing again.

    P.s. Come on Abigail lets hear you playing then…

  14. Jane Ramsden says:

    @ Tobysails: Thanks so much for the Hawaiian whaling info! That sounds very right to me. I canny abide not knowing stuff! Hahahahaha!

  15. Nigel Gardner says:

    Ms Simpson evidently had a shocking hang-over but I hope she had a good night of it – quite liked the joanna

  16. Derek says:

    Simple Bar Room Piano + Simple words sung with conviction = A compelling experience, Thank You.

  17. muzza says:

    So there I was..trawling back through the songs looking for added comments(as you do) and saw”17comments”. Must be good thought I……and then I realised that I’d actually missed the song the first time round!!! aaarrrgh!
    Abso-blooming-lutly loved it……a bit like Shenondoah…all moody and wistful…and perfect accompaniment of subtle piano. My tops for the month so far. One to learn.

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  19. Renny says:

    I loved this and have been trying to sing it all evening.

    Does anyone know where I can download the guitar notes and chords for this? I’m a beginner and I’m thinking it would be a good place to begin.

  20. John Biggs (Welsh Marches) says:

    Over the intervening year, Ms Simpson’s contribution to the comments seems to have disappeared so those of us still completing our first voyage may never know what she said. Perhaps, just as well.
    For me this was a new version of an old favourite, and I loved it. Like Tobysails, I have known the ‘Tommy’ version and therefore associated it with whaling. I only learnt recently that many of the whaling vessels in the southern oceans were re-stocked with provisions by other ships, called Wellermen, who would also remove the catches they had made, so that the whaling vessel could continue hunting. These guys could be gone for many years !
    Muzza’s description, ‘moody and wistful’ really sums up the atmosphere of Jon’s version, and I too enjoyed the piano accompaniment.

  21. John Biggs (Welsh Marches) says:

    Got the wrong end of the stick again ! The Wellerman boats did NOT service other whaling vessels as I stated above. They actually serviced small whaling stations set up on remote rocky islets off the Antarctic coast, from where men would set off in small boats to hunt and harpoon whales and tow them ashore. The men hoped to earn enough money to buy a passage back to New Zealand but many of them never did. Why did I start this ramble? !

  22. Diana says:

    The piano accompaniment certainly adds a new flavour to this song. Mr Boden plays so many instruments so why not a piano as well.

  23. Jane Ramsden says:

    @ John B: I know exactly how you feel when going on one of these rambles! If ye get off-track, it behoves you to get back on again for AFSAD’s sake! Here is a web link to a page which tells you all about ‘shore whalers’ and the ship owners, Weller Brothers of Sydney, from whence ‘wellermen’ got their name. Most of them never got passage home, because they were not paid in money, but provisions:

    The page is from the wonderfully informative ‘New Zealand Folk Song – pages for home-made songs about life in New Zealand.’

    I was incredibly tempted to foray into such gems as ‘There was arsenic in poor Betty,’ about the last man to be hanged in NZ. Almost as tempted as by the song I never did get to the bottom of ref lyrics, ‘She Got It Where McDooley Got The Brick!’ I am still madly curious, and minded to write to the appropriate library in Ameriky, when we reach whatever song on AFSAD spawned that musical nugget!

  24. Jane Ramsden says:

    Oh, I couldn’t resist! This tale could be worthy of Bellowhead, though to a different tune than the one exampled, which doesn’t exactly rock! Not a patch on ‘My Johny’s Gone To Hilo’ in the sad and whimsical stakes either:

    “For 40 years Tom dipped his sheep to kill the ticks and lice
    Old Betty made home remedies from sheep dip once or twice
    Poor old Betty, her home remedies, and her cups of tea all day
    Old Tom preferred a beer or two to keep the dust at bay.

    Poor old Betty, always sickly, though her husband nursed her well
    Poor old Betty, always sickly, not like her sister, Sal
    Tom loved to visit Sally with her hair dyed flaming red
    Tom loved to visit Sally, and share her widow’s bed.”

    The song’s called ‘Puketapu’ and the full version & story can be found here:

    All I can say is, keep away from that Young’s arsenical sheep dip!

  25. John Biggs (Welsh Marches) says:

    Thanks for that Jane. After listening to this song, far too late at night, I started listening to other songs about whaling, including one sung by Gordon Bok called The Wellerman. (a great song) I made far too many assumptions from the content of the song as I realised when I made further studies next day.
    This folk song thing takes you into all sorts of unknown territory.

  26. Jane Ramsden says:

    @ John B: Yup, unknown territory. Since coming on here, I’ve been everywhere.. man… hahahaha!

  27. Diana says:

    Still like this and the piano accompaniment. It is not very often that one hears a piano on a song these days – a refreshing change.

  28. Diana says:

    I am still awaiting Bellowhead – it is unusual to get it late from Amazon.

  29. Linda says:

    @Diana mine came a day late got it yesterday.

  30. Old Muzza(NW Surrey-UK) says:

    Whoa….lovely to hear about old Johnny again…….
    and Jane’s link to the New Zealand songs………..the verses that she quoted above are an example of expert poetry writing….every line so tight and gives the story in so few words.
    I suspect that Abigail’s comments have been removed…… I can’t see what she said..however, the trick is ‘NOT TO RISE TO THE BAIT’……….I’m sure Jon is old enough and wise enough to take on board any salient points and to disregard mischievous comments……………which are usually placed by trolls to get sensitive folk champing at the bit…and it worked -didn’t it!

  31. Old Muzza(NW Surrey-UK) says:

    Well said Muzza………I was beginning to think that I was the only one still reading/listening to there’s still thee and me!

  32. Linda says:

    Lovely… went to see Seth Lakeman last night .really good, check out his support act Kim Churchill think he could join Paul and Sam “springing” about with Bellowhead.
    @Muzza…..your not alone and aren’t these dots……. catching. I m sure there are others out there who just don’t know what to comment …just say hello and let Muzza know he’s not alone

  33. Old Muzza(NW Surrey.UK says:

    Not exactly Overwhelmed by the responses in a year Lindy Lou……..
    just thee and me then!
    I still enjoy having the song a day..and really delighted that this has come round again…..
    uh oh……….I’m three days ahead of myself……mustn’t look at the 18ths song until the 18th!!

  34. Linda says:

    3 years on and hopefully another Bellowhead CD has just arrived Pandemonium….Will miss the band but 2 farewell concerts to go first…..
    Like you Muzza I still like to pop back and read the comments..

  35. Old Muzza(NW Surrey.UK says:

    Poor girl…………still hoping for a call from that Johnny………I think she should move on

  36. Linda says:

    Well after the Farewell Tour (see 2015) what to fill the space with No problem a superb tour by Fay Hield and The Hurricane Party, Eliza Carthy and the Wayward Band to come and a solo tour by Jon, dipped a toe into the folk festival world with Derby Folk ……………still me n thee Muzza !

  37. Linda says:

    Forgot to say I like this version. I suspect that Jon is an extremely good pianist, but I think travelling with a piano rather than a fiddle would be a problem……..

  38. Old Muzza(N.W.Surrey UK) says:

    Having re read the comments and listening to Jon’s diction….not sure if young Johnny (he’d be old by now!) went to Ilo (as in the verse) or Hilo (as per Jon’s chorus)………..
    Johnny would nave earned more in Ilo…… as he’d have been on NIghtRATE!!!
    (just me then)

  39. Linda says:

    (me too) Still managing to fill the Bellowhead gap but this year its Jon’s Afterglow tour,
    Just started to watch a programme about the Lusitania on National Geo started with a very haunting version of The Grey Funnel Line.

  40. Linda says:

    Like this version more gentle than the usual bouncy versions,,,,,

  41. OldMuzza(NWSurrey UK) says:

    Loved the song yet again…..but I don’t understand the ‘joke’ I appear to have cracked three comments above!!!! (old blokes…I ask yer!)

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