Roll Alabama


Jon recalls “I used to sing this a lot when I got started with fiddle-singing. It always used to go down well at the Talking Heads in Southampton. One of the great shanty choruses I think, although I’m not sure it’s actually a work shanty?”

According to Mudcat it’s a halyard shanty and today marks the anniversary of the sinking of the CSS Alabama. There’s a fascinating story about the British built raider that you can Wiki here. It’s interesting to see that the British sympathies seemed to be with the Confederacy because of the cotton trade, despite our outward stance of neutrality. If the story is to be believed, The CSS Alabama seems to be quite heroic, causing great damage with no loss of life. It’s interesting to note, however, that the Captain Semmes was painfully aware that the raiders were simply legitimised pirates, although I guess the war footing put a different perspective on it. Those with time on their hand might like to follow this link to the memoirs of Captain Semmes.



37 Responses to “Roll Alabama”

  1. Mark says:

    Given when this project started, I’ve been waiting excitedly to find out what ‘my’ birthday song might be – and it’s a cracker!

    As we’re almost at midsummer, I’d like to add my thanks to the list of those who have already done so. I’m a bit of a folkie newcomer, so this site has been a fascinating and vital way of learning about some new songs and different versions of ones I thought I knew. I’ve been inspired to sing myself (which I remember was one of Jon’s aims with the project) and I’ve really enjoyed listening to some great music – it’s been fun!

    So thanks very much to you Jon, and to you Simon as well for working so hard at finding background info and so on for us. I look forward to whatever the next iteration of AFSAD is…

  2. Rosie says:

    Brilliant song, and a joy to sing along with.
    Just to say a big thankyou to everyone on this marvellous project for all the hard work . I,ve learned a lot, ( never heard of Mudcat and Mainly Norfolk before.) and have even been inspired to pick up my melodeon again. ( Only when the house is empty though! )
    Rumours of AFSAD 2 ? Bring it on !

  3. Jane Ramsden says:

    Everything about this song was wonderful from my point of view, from the singing, beautiful accompaniment and a glorious historical adventure story to boot! Certainly shivered my timbers, taking me back to ‘Rose in June’ early on in the project and the other ‘timber-shiverer,’ Jon & Fay’s duet of ‘Sea Coal.’ For a land lubber, some of the sea songs have been highlights for me! And just marvellous that someone wrote this song so that the history isn’t forgotten. I wouldn’t have known about it if not for here.

  4. Jane Ramsden says:

    Not sure if it mentions this on the Mudcat link, which I may not have read properly, but the lyrics to this song, based on an earlier American sea shanty, are credited to one Frank Townsend, a confederate sailor on the Alabama. (This information came from a website called Rallying Songs of the South.)

  5. Reinhard says:

    Stan Hugill writes in his “Shanties from the Seven Seas” that he got his version of Roll, Alabama, Roll “from an elderly New Zealand lady whose husband had been a seaman in the Alabama. I met her in Gisborne, New Zealand, in 1925.” He doesn’t mention a name so she may well have been Mrs Townsend.

  6. Jane Ramsden says:

    Her husband might well have served with Frank Townsend if not the man himself! Thanks, Reinhard.

  7. Patrick Rose says:

    Think someone sang this at a session recently (it sounds familiar). Even so, I think I shall borrow this 🙂

    And I’d like to reiterate what everyone has said. I started becoming a folkie in January, and this has been a goldmine of songs to learn.

  8. John Phipps says:

    An odd pick for Juneteenth

  9. Chris Carter says:

    I learnt this song song more years ago than I care to remember from the the debut album of Swan Arcade (Dave Brady, Heather Brady, Jim Boyes). Their version has a rougher, more shanty rhythm and is sung unaccompanied. This version, more lyrical and with a beautiful accompaniment, is very different in character and utterly fantastic.

  10. Jane Ramsden says:

    @ Chris: Now it is this kind of knowledge I shall so miss at the end of AFSAD! Being a native of where Swan Arcade came from, having discovered their ‘Babylon’ on here, but having missed their heyday, thank you so much for the above pointer! I have found Swan Arcade singing ‘Roll, Alabama’ on YouTube. Cracking! Here it is!

  11. nev perry says:

    Much of the historical reference with regard to this epic battle can be found on google, loads of photos and archaeological info. According to internet sources the french located the wreck back in 1980s and 90s off Cherbourg harbour and the story continues to unfold. So far many items of historical interest have been brought to the surface after ni on a 150 years. Raised artifacts include some cannon still loaded and ready to fire and the ships bell. much of the lyric found in the song is based on truth and fact. great choice of song Jon! Would’nt it be good if someone wrote a modern epitaf to this story in the folk idiom?

  12. Diana says:

    Got this as a podcast ages ago, but it took my fancy so much that I ended up printing 14 pages of information from Wikipedia, which had pretty much everything about the Alabama. Really entertaining and true account of the ship from being built to her demise. Well worth a read.

    An excellent rendition by Jon.

  13. Diana says:

    It seems my comment is awaiting moderation so it may never be seen so will just say a great song sung by Jon.- Really enjoyed it.

  14. Old Muzza(NW Surrey UK) says:

    @Diana……………everything in moderation Diana…….a good tip for life!
    Yep….one of our morris fellas sings this…….good to know the background.

  15. Old Muzza(NW Surrey UK) says:

    @Jane…..thanks for the Swan Arcade link…..can hear every word of the lyrics and the fella that posted ‘Alabama’ seems to have put a whole album on.

  16. Diana says:

    If you could see my comment Muzza you might find it more informative but perhaps you will never know. Moderation do you abide by this I wonder? Remembering your chish and fips.

  17. Linda says:

    what a week, another song beautifully sung.

  18. Jane Ramsden says:

    Love it, as you would expect of me with anything that has even a vague Swan Arcade connection. The person who uploaded their version on YouTube wrote:

    “Bombastic version of the Civil War sea shanty by the inimitable Swan Arcade of West Yorkshire, from their first album (1972). Come now, admit it: you’ve never heard a better version!”

    What made me laugh was one of the tags under that note was ‘fr1gg1n brilliant music’ – hope I don’t get moderated for that!

    One commentator wrote: “Dave Brady is channeling Bellamy :)” – a thought which struck me before I scrolled down to that comment. I would not have known who Peter Bellamy was but for this project. Thankee, Jon. You do a fair job of channelling Bellamy yourself in your own style.

    When I last saw John Tams at ‘Raise Yer Banners’ I mentioned how pleased I was that he covered ‘Babylon Is Fallen,’ on account of being from Bradford and loving the Swan Arcade version. He said, ‘Ah, Dave Brady, one of my heroes.’ To which I could only say, ‘Well, you’re the hero and one carrying the banner now.’ I would love to hear Bellowhead cover ‘Babylon Is Fallen’ for a big sound… but covered by Jon and Fay (on that duet album I wasn’t going to mention again) would be absolutely amazing!

    Ref Bellamy and nasal twang, I have been watching my ‘You Can Sing’ dvd and learning about ‘forward placement.’ Methinks, Mr Bellamy and Dave Brady had it in spades! I only have the nasal twang at the moment on account of the ratting head cold. I was practising my ‘Sheepshearing’ song in the cellar with the view to a last-ditch attempt to upload to AFSAD, but not sure the cold will allow now. It was coming along quite nicely too… I had graduated to singing it in the bath… I am not sure if my black cat Panthero (Pant hero, to those of us who know him intimately!) was signifying approval when he put his front legs on the side of the bath and kept repeatedly patting me on the cheek! He doesn’t usually do that… perhaps he just wanted his tea… but it was only each time I started to sing. In my defence, he was continuously purring while he did it!

  19. Old Muzza(NW Surrey UK) says:

    @Diana……yep……I read all the info on the song…..I had never picked this up from my man singing……I think we just ignored his lyrics and joined in the chorus……we sang it at the apres morris in Farnham last night as I had circulated all the info to the side and we saw it in a different light!.
    @Jane…..loved the way you Just drop in comments…
    “When I last saw JT..I said to hilm!!!!””…..
    and you have a CELLAR!..wot a posh bird you are!
    I await with bated breath your Youtube “Sheepshearing song” sung in the the cellar…with cat accompaniment. Where do you keep your coal now!
    Ooer…Just heard “the Vincent Black Lightning” song on Mike Harding…I have a friend who has several of them..and I’ve ridden one-.sent a shiver down me spine.
    Looks as though my morris friends and I are going to get wet & blown to pieces when we perform at the Teignmouth Folk festival this weekend..hope my tent holds out!

  20. Diana says:

    Ah Muzza lucky you – many is the holiday I have spent in Teignmouth and next door Shaldon. Happy days!. There was a lot of pertinent info on the Alabama and it sounds as though you might have followed by comment up. It is not very often I go to so much trouble but I got really interested in the fate of the Alabama and I really liked the song.

    I will wait with anticipation Jane singing but I am not sure she has a bath down in the cellar. Still we can only hope to hear “Sheepshearing song” at some future date can’t we?

  21. John Bryson says:

    Looking forward to receiving my copy of Revival, this song being on the new Bellowhead album.

    This is a great song, well performed by Jon

  22. Linda says:

    Also looking forward to Revival CD think we have to wait an extra week for release.
    Another of my favourite songs.

  23. Linda says:

    Looks like the rugrats might have tired you out Muzza so will step in for today,
    Have acquired a kindle book called Two Years on the Alabama which I intend reading when I get the chance….

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

    Good that this has come round again……
    .what I didn’t know when I made my comments (4 above) was that the tight chest and breathlessness I was bravely ignoring during the morris tour in Weymouth was the precursor of a heart attack at the end of that August………hindsight is very interesting!
    Anyway…here I still am to remember Don and his old Alabama song…huzzah!

  25. Ian hazell says:

    Takes me back to Knaresborough Folk Club in the 1970s/80s with John Burrell singing . Brilliant!

  26. Marty Stock says:

    We just had a contentious election over here in Alabama, and the good guy apparently won. Someone named Myron Bretholz was inspired by this wonderful song to write this parody, of which I took the liberty to tweak a line or two:

    “Doug Jones Beat Judge Roy Moore”

    After Alabama’s votes were in
    Doug Jones beat Judge Roy Moore
    The democrat won by a slim margin
    O roll, Alabama’s polls!

    The Democrat won by a slim margin
    Doug Jones beat Judge Roy Moore
    Roy Moore showed no remorse for his sins
    O roll, Alabama’s polls!

    A horse called Sassy brought Roy to vote
    Doug Jones beat Judge Roy Moore
    But Doug Jones won and that’s all she wrote
    O roll, Alabama’s polls!

  27. old Muzza (NW Surrey) says:

    Well Marty………….did Doug Jones live up to expectations?
    or is the Judge back in this year!….or the horse!

  28. John Bryson says:

    Had the pleasure of seeing Jon perform this solo at The Stables, Wavendon, in April this year – the packed house belted out the refrain!

  29. Linda says:

    Well John how’s your copy of Revival faring (comment 2014) my is still going strong and alternates with Afterglow in the car and I still haven’t read the book I got last year!!!!

  30. Linda says:

    Back to the sea……really must read Two Years on the Alabama…..

  31. Old Muzza (NW Surrey) says:

    Just been watching on Film 4 ..”About time”…made in 2013…..and halfway through….Buskers on the Underground….young Jon Boden and his merry men!

  32. A little too quiet for me in delivery ~ really ~ a shanty not a lullaby


  33. Linda says:

    at last started to read Two Years on the Alabama think its going to take a while……

  34. OldMuzza(NWSurrey UK) says:

    Well Lindy Lou…did you get through the book….or will it take another two years to read!
    Great to get the daily reminder of each song…just had a rousing session of Alabama on the old melodeon. woo hoo….Doubt if the neighbours were too pleased at 11:20 am!

  35. John Bryson says:

    Hello Linda, my Revival album still wearing well

  36. Linda says:

    Muzza still not finished it think I will have to start it again the move to Lincolnshire sort of curtailed a bit of the reading…
    John the CD still going strong along with Songs from the Flood Plain/Afterglow and the final part Last Mile Home and quite a few more purchased during lock down. Jon did a nice 45mins last night with Lisa Knapp on his Patreon site….

  37. Jane (Maryland) says:

    The Swan Arcade video Jane R. posted in 2011 is no longer available, but I found this which may be the same thing. Another great version of the song to go with Jon’s.

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