Plains Of Mexico


Jon says of this one, “From possibly the most powerful recording of the Watersons I’ve heard. There’s also lots of interesting stuff about the origins of the Santy Anna refrain.”

Now there’s a challenge. Firstly this is apparently a capstan or pump shanty and the Watersons were predated by A.L.Lloyd in the recording stakes. I note that Bert also makes much of the Watersons’ version praising them for singing “an ocean-going shanty in an ocean going way, roughly with plenty of guts.” Anyway, one of the possible origins of the Santy Anna refrain that Jon refers to is the Mexican general/president, Antonio Lopez de Santa Aña, although he is missing from the Watersons’ and thereby Jon’s versions. It seems that the British took the side of the Mexicans in their conflict with the USA, perhaps unsurprisingly and it seems that some British sailors even fought with them in the war. Equally it’s been attributed to the Black American slaves, who also identified with Santa Aña, again presumably on a ‘my enemy’s enemy’ basis. Most straight forward is the suggestion that it’s simply the patron saint of Breton seamen Saint Anne. It may be an amalgam of both general and saint that suited the singing. As we’ve covered with all shanties, the verses are entirely fluid and many were probably made up on the spot to suit the circumstances. Following this Mudcat thread down gives some alternatives, including things related to California and the gold-rush and you might want to Wiki here too. Plus there is more made of the historical (in)accuracy as the song at some point simply flips Santa Aña from loser to victor. It also seems that some versions will have included reference to Bonepart, probably for no other reason than he was a popular figure to include in songs, although Santa Aña may have styled himself on the Frenchman. The final oddity for this post is that this is a shanty about the plains of Mexico, when the bays or ports would seem more fitting. You can get yourself tied into some knots trying to sort the various threads and the truth is probably that the words and sentiments changed all the time depending on who was doing the singing and where. I note Jon follows the Watersons and seems more concerned with the girls of Liverpool than any Mexican Generalissimos. Actually there is one final, final oddity as it seems shanties are big in Poland. I guess there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be, but it’s got me curious and I’d love to hear from someone to confirm or refute this and perhaps, if true, some explanation.


26 Responses to “Plains Of Mexico”

  1. Simon Dewsbury says:

    That’s a real magnum opus there Simon – excellent!

    ‘they comb their hair with a kipper back comb’ – lovely image. It appears that Liverpool girls lose out in their level of hair care.

  2. Phil says:

    It’s certainly true about shanties being big in Poland – the late Johnny Collins was very big over there. (And it’s a seafaring nation, after all.) There is probably more information here.

  3. Dave Eyre says:

    I wonder if the Poles kept their traditions longer – is the first suggestion, such things tend to happen in oppressed nations IMHO. Secondly I wonder if there were a lot more sailing ships – so they seem to be into such things.

    Pete Hayselden (Shanty Jack) may be able to help. I have asked him to take a look.

  4. Jan says:

    This has long been a favourite in my family. My son, singing to his daughters at bedtime, was puzzled by a request for ‘Max’s Haircomb’, which after much discussion turned out to be Plains of Mexico – no doubt something to do with the kipper backbone!

    Simon, the back story of this has obviously caught your interest, as it did mine. I think you have the right of it in saying that it changed according to who was singing and where, as it is for many songs.

  5. David Ward says:

    I think it’s kipper back ‘bone’ rather than ‘comb’. Anyone tried combing their hair with a kipper?

  6. Iggy says:

    The Liverpool girls and their kipper back bones appeared earlier on AFSAD in Blood Red Roses:

    The ‘Hey Up Santy Anna’ refrain also, unsuprisingly, appears in Remember the Alamo (which I first heard as the Donovan version:

  7. Simon says:

    Jan as far as I can tell shanties are more slippery than a bucket full of eels covered in sun tan lotion, but you’re right, the story of the Mexican conflict is another I know little about. I just love the way that things that seem inappropriate, or just plain wrong get carried along in songs and passed on regardless. Either that or one of my simian typing pool hit pay dirt! Damn! That’s given the game away.

  8. Shanty Jack says:

    Stan Hugill’s notes give the origin of this as a Pump or windlass shanty which later developed into a Capstan shanty.

    Stangely enough, a quick flip through Shanties from the Seven Seas does not reveal a “Long Chorus” version, which you would normally expect a long chorus for pump or capstan.

    The lyrics posted by Sharon A. on the Mudcat thread with references to the gold rush of ‘49 are clearly a capstan variant.

    The fact that many British sailors jumped ship and joined Santa Ana’s army could have some relevance to the transposition of the victors and the references to “plains”. My own thoughts on this are as follows:
    I believe that the battle of Molina del Rey –1847 – (Molly del Rey) was fought on an area of flat land not far from Mexico City – hence possibly the reference to plains.
    British seamen having suffering defeat at the hand of General Taylor may well have subsequently seen fit to alter the facts to save face.

    David Bone’s “Saint Anne” hypothesis I do not discount but it seems to me to be not so strong as the others.

    As has been already mentioned, the words of many shanties were made up on the spur of the moment by the “Shantyman”. He would not be a stickler for historical accuracy but you can be sure that any seafaring technical terms or phrases would be spot on.

    Regarding the Polish enthusiasm for Shanties. I was in Poland several times for Shanty events. The first couple of times were round about 1990 or 1991. Stan Hugill was there on both occasions and he was treated like a pop star. The concerts in Krakow attracted an audience of several thousand, mostly youngish people. On later visits with Johnny Collins the enthusiasm was still there.
    A Polish guy Marek Siurawski (had a group at that time called Stare Dzwony – the old Bells) he translated most of Stan Hugill’s “Shanties from the Seven Seas” into Polish and published it.
    I don’t seem to think that the Polish have all that many original shanties.
    Many of the (again, mostly young) groups sang Siurawski’s translations and placed their own interpretations on the songs. Whilst some of these interpretations were sympathetic to the origins of the songs, others were definitely not. As to the reasons for popularity (in Poland) . . . . . . .
    Shanties are mostly straightforward, gutsy, often cheerful and mostly easy to sing. I think, at that particular time – emerging from the cultural iron grip of communism – many young Poles were keen to adopt whatever western culture they could and the shanty was less likely to be frowned on or persecuted in the way that western “Pop” music would have been.
    Groups like Stare Dzwony and Cztery Refy played a significant part in establishing the genre in Poland.

  9. Maurice says:

    This is the first song I learned to acompany myself on guitar with. The version I learned was the same as rich r’s version on Mudcat .
    I learned it when I was 10 so 1965.

  10. Simon says:

    Shanty Jack that was brilliant. Thanks.

  11. Jane Ramsden says:

    Yes, thanks Shanty Jack! So glad I frequently look back at comments on earlier songs! As Simon says, brilliantly informative.

  12. Muzza(NW Surrey.UK) says:

    @Admin Simon..ref 5 Comments above…..
    ‘Either that or one of my simian typing pool hit pay dirt! Damn! ‘………..
    This is such an educational site……had to look it up-now realise that Daina /Pewter et al use the same agency!

  13. Diana says:

    My, what a wealth of information there was to read this am. Really interesting stuff too. I can add a snippet of recently acquired information that General Zachary Taylor of the Mexican Wars became the 12th President of the United States of America.

    Muzza you are so right – one does learn so much just reading eveything that is written by so many people on AFSAD.

    By the way I did enjoy the song.

  14. Jan says:

    Yes, I’m still learning interesting stuff from AFSAD posts second time around, often, it has to be said, thanks to Jane. Still can’t do a smiley face, though!

    Thanks, Muzza and Jane , for your good wishes – I’m still feeling a bit fragile, but it’s our singaround session this evening which will do me a world of good. Then the Lady Maisery workshop a week on Thursday – I’m really looking forward to that.

  15. Jane Ramsden says:

    Thanks for the compliment, Jan. It’s a complete surprise to me what I learn from my own posts second time round – I am amazed at what I’ve forgotten in a year!

  16. Muzza(NW Surrey.UK) says:

    @Jane………your comment ‘I am amazed at what I have forgotten in a year’
    reminds me of the wonderful comment attributed to Mark Twain (as near as I can remember)

    ‘When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years’

  17. Diana says:

    That sounds about right Muzza, I seem to remember it – almost word for word. That’s a good recollection. 🙂

  18. Muzza (N.W.Surrey-UK) says:

    @Admin Simon..ref 6 Comments above…..
    ‘Either that or one of my simian typing pool hit pay dirt! Damn! ‘………..

    2013…I had to look ‘Simian’ up yet again…'(means pertaining to apes/monkeys’)
    the old memory not what it was! ;-)…no stopping me now!

  19. Diana says:

    Oh dear and I just said you memory was good. :-p

  20. Old Muzza(N.W surrey.UK) says:

    Yep………..I’d forgotten what Simian mean’t YET AGAIN!!! 😕

  21. Diana says:

    Ah well Muzza it comes to us all!

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

    My ambition is to be clever enough to become a simian……i.e. (infraorder Simiiformes, Anthropoidea) the family of higher primates……….It will have to wait as a more important ambition is to save enough to move into a slum property with no heating/water/windows/loo… still my beating heart! :roll)

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

    See…..even the bally emicon wont work for me now!

  24. old Muzza(N.W.Surrey.UK) says:

    Well….ref my simian aspirations…..I have got as far as Hear no evil/speak no evil/see no evil

  25. Jane (Maryland) says:

    Love the shanties!

    Watching the MN video of Fay singing Weaver’s Daughter yesterday led me to her TEDx talk on folk music She quotes someone called “Jon Boden” toward the end 🙂

  26. OldMuzza(NWSurrey UK) says:

    Jane (Maryland)…..not sure from your comment…but Jon is Fay’s partner.
    Thanks for the TED link

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