Blood Red Roses


I’ll note that Jon says, “Another big song at camp, or at least it was when I was young, but these things go in cycles.” I’ll also note that the lyrics Jon sings to this are markedly different to the sets that I can find and a might more salty. Mainly Norfolk covers Lloyd and the Watersons (Folksons) and mentions Bellamy’s version, which also pretty much follows the same line as those two. So I was at a bit of a loss to explain where Jon’s words came from or indeed the sense of this shanty. I’ll refer you to this Mudcat post as it’s interesting (if slightly wayward) in terms of the rhythmic and the work element of the song. Other than that, I can only cop out and say that many shanties seem to have any number of variants and probably changed at will. Further searches at Mudcat have revealed all manner of debate about the meanings and origins of “Go down you blood red roses.” I’ll leave that to your discretion as to how much time you have on your hands, but if you can add here, please do.

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17 Responses to “Blood Red Roses”

  1. Simon Dewsbury says:

    A sad comment on the declining powers of advancing age? I suspect it’s not seen that way when Jon sings it in a pub session.

  2. muzza says:

    Only nine at a time………when I were a boy …that was before breakfast…dunno what’s wrong with the youth of today. (Blokes-I ask yer!)
    When they gave out Noses…I thought they said Roses and I asked for a big red one.

  3. Yer Gran says:

    Far more gritty than the pretty Matthews Southern Comfort version I know and love.
    The words used here give credence to what I have heard,that the,”blood red roses” were a sign of “the pox”-cf.”Ring a Roses” and the plague.
    Ooh get you Jon and your Shantyman’s yelp-good stirring stuff!

  4. Phil says:

    cf.”Ring a Roses” and the plague


  5. Nige Rivers says:

    A bold rendition surely of the single entendre. Love it.

  6. Nelleke says:

    Funny to hear this in the daylight and as a solo! When we have sung it on Camp (and yes Jon, it is still sung) I have always told people the red roses refer to syphillis rather than the pox…. an anti promiscuity song?

  7. Jan says:

    Jon’s verses sound more to me like Plains of Mexico(Watersons version) although they only knock two at a time even in their prime. Good shanty though, Jon!

  8. Jane Ramsden says:

    @ Phil:

    “cf.”Ring a Roses” and the plague – Aargh! ”

    Hahahahaha! The myth persists, though there may some truth in the one about ‘blood red roses’ being a euphemism for signs of venereal disease. I couldn’t cope with reading all the Mudcat info properly, but I did note one contributor said he thought the part of a ship reserved for sailors with VD was referred to as Rose Cottage. I thought the expression more commonly meant a temporary morgue, which I can’t see fitting this rousing song! (My timbers were a tadge too shivered by this rendition, Jon!)

    Nor do I see how the connection with the uniforms of British soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars fits either, unless the alternative words ‘Come down, you bunch of roses’ is a means of calling out the enemy. One version seems to be a plea for a successful whale-harpooning, which would fit.

    So the only new suggestion I can add is in relation to the roses themselves. Blood red roses are really black roses, since there is no such thing as a truly black rose. Throughout history, a black rose has been used by people to symbolise the end of a relationship, loss of a loved one, the sense of a person’s own mortality, or used to show the death of old habits (which last 2 meanings might fit here.)

    Other than that, it will have to remain a secret… sub rosa, as the Romans used to say.

  9. Clive Lake says:

    There’s a version of this song, with much the same tune, on Roger McGuinn’s ‘Folk Den’ website. It’s one of 35 songs in the ‘Seafaring’ section. Thus: The chanteyman often used improvisation and parody in his solo lines to the advantage and amusement of the crew, but the chorus lines, on which the work action was based, were repetitive and changeless. For example, in using Blood Red Roses to raise the top-sails, top gallant sails (t’ga’n’s’ls), or sky-s’ls, the chanteyman, who on some ships also put his back to the task, would have sung:
    Chanteyman: Our boots and clothes are all in pawn

    Crew: Go down Ye blood red roses. Go down

    Chanteyman: And its flamin’ drafty ’round Cape Horn

    Crew: Go down Ye blood red roses. Go down

    The word Go, was the signal for the men to haul back on the halyards.

    Our boots and clothes are all in pawn
    Go down, you blood red roses, Go down.
    And its flamin’ drafty ’round Cape Horn,
    Go down, you blood red roses, Go down.
    cho: Oh, you pinks and posies,
    Go down, you blood red roses, Go down.
    My dear old mother said to me,
    My dearest son, come home from sea.
    It’s ’round Cape Horn we all must go
    ‘Round Cape Horn in the frost and snow.
    You’ve got your advance, and to sea you’ll go
    To chase them whales through the frost and snow.
    It’s ’round Cape Horn you’ve got to go,
    For that is where them whalefish blow.
    It’s growl you may, but go you must,
    If you growl too much your head they’ll bust.
    Just one more pull and that will do
    For we’re the boys to kick her through.

  10. Jane Ramsden says:

    Clive, I didn’t know so I didn’t say, but I did think the song sounded as if it was switching between 2 stories/actions i.e. the work going on on board ship and another tale, reminiscence or whatever. Thanks for your excellent explanation!

  11. Clive Lake says:

    Jane, Thanks for your comment. I can’t claim any credit. I have simply cut and pasted the introductory text, and these lyrics to “Blood Red Roses” from “Folk Den”. As well as this one, I notice that Jon Boden’s version of the “Rolling Down to Old Maui” shanty appeared on 23 August. (This was before I started to follow ‘A Folk Song A Day’.) McGuinn has recently added this song to his website. I dare say there already are, and probably will be more, instances of their shared good taste in song selection. Very best, Clive.

  12. normanden says:

    We used to (attempt to) sing this in the pub in the late 60’s, always wondered how it got inland to Hereford!

  13. Diana says:

    One of the few that I must say I did not care for. The exception rather than the rule though.

  14. Phil says:

    This seems to have originated from an American shanty called “Come down, you bunch of roses”, which in turn seems to have been based on a West Indian children’s rhyme.

    Here’s me doing it recently, with some links to info on the shanty:

    Come down you bunch of roses (52 Folk Songs)

  15. 3crows says:

    It seemed to me that the song didn’t make much sense, in that “Go down you blood red roses” should mean the sinking of English ships by pirates or Americans during the Revolutionary War but then the rest of the verses don’t fit with that theme. Someone should write lyrics in that direction. It sounds to me like ‘Pinks ans Posies’ would be a derogatory term meaning sissy directed at the English.

  16. Shuggie the boat says:

    Could it not just be that the colour of the men’s faces after coming down from unfurling the top sail in cold weather resembled blood red roses.

  17. Alan Griffiths says:

    There’s been great discussion about this shanty on the Mudcat site. It’s been a long discussion. The outcome is that there is no known definitive answer to what the actual Blood Red Roses were, or symbolised.
    I’ve been researching the different verses of the song and currently have over thirty. Some are similar, others la one off. There are various different wordings for the chorus too. The version I learnt used GED DOWN instead of GO DOWN or GET DOWN.

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