Sunday, 27 May 2012

50: Blow the Man Down

For the 50th song on this blog, I thought I'd go back to the very first Liverpool folk song I knew of - I've had the chorus of this song rattling around in my head since I was 7: "Blow the man down, bullies, blow the man down, to me whey hey blow the man down, Blow him right back into Liverpool town, gimme some time to blow the man down!" The tune I sing here is the one I've known since then, at slight variance in its 2nd half to most of the tunes I've seen written down... this is almost certainly because of the distorting effects of memory recall, but I see no point in 'correcting' my childhood memory of the tune in the interests of some false authenticity.

That said (getting off my high horse now), apart from that chorus I don't really know what other words I learned as a child, although I definitely remember the reference to Paradise Street, because the song would go through my head whenever I walked down there. There are numerous versions of this halyard shanty, but I can state with 100% certainty that the words I'm using here, based on the singing of Stan Hugill, aren't the ones I was taught as a child. They tell the story of an assault on a police officer; the protagonist in the song is accused of being a thief sailing aboard the trans-Atlantic Black Ball line, but protests that he is a victim of mistaken identity, and is actually a 'flying fish sailor'. According to Hugill this meant "a John who preferred the lands of the East and the warmth of the Trade Winds to the cold and misery of the Western Ocean" - such flying fish sailors were seen as softies in comparison to those who sailed under the harsh conditions of the Black Ball Line.

Paradise Street, once at the heart of Liverpool's sailortown, is now almost entirely engulfed by the monument to chain-store consumerism that is Liverpool One. Nevertheless, if you do find yourself 'rolling down Paradise Street' for some reason, you'll see the beautiful gates of the Sailor's Home (pictured above) have been installed there as some kind of reminder of the street's maritime history.

The various versions of Blow the Man Down are all #2624 in the Roud folksong index.


  1. Hello there!

    Good stuff. You're right, there are so many different themes that go with this one. I'm not sure if you've seen Hugill's unabridged collection, that that one has even more variations. Of course, Hugill did not hear all those variation; he discovered some in different books. There is also evidence that the shanty was sung to no particular theme at all, just a jumble of separate verses. And an interesting connection to an African-American version, "Knock a Man Down."

    When I visited Liverpool, I was very keen on seeing Paradise Street, And also Great Howard Street. Oh, and also Radcliffe Highway when I was in London! The streets vary greatly. "Paradise Street", I feel, got locked in as a sort of standard when the standard-ish "land" version was established by revival singers. So from a historical vantage, I don't think the street cinches a connection to Liverpool. But the song did seem to have become associated with the Black Ball Line, so there is definitely a strong Liverpool element to its history.

    Ranzo :{

  2. Hiya there,

    Yep, I'd definitely agree with you that a lot of these shanties have "settled down" as Liverpool songs, whereas they almost certainly had a more general and eclectic social origin to begin with. If I was going to go for a historic attachment, I think the Black Ball line is the sensible one, as you say; for emotional and personal attachment, it's the Paradise Street link and the "blow him right back into Liverpool town" seeded in my head as a child all those years ago! But that's definitely a revival link, not a sea-going one (would really like to dig up the 'safe version' of the words I was taught as a child)