Friday, August 29, 2014

The Sloop John B. Goes Home

For decades, I only thought of “Sloop John B.” as a Beach Boys song.  The 1966 Beach Boys track was the earliest one that I knew about, and I also knew that the song was on their acclaimed album Pet Sounds.  So, I thought that “Sloop John B.” was written by Brian Wilson.  Only recently did I discover that the tune — which is known by a variety of titles — is a traditional song from the Bahamas and was first committed to record more than 30 years before the Pet Sounds track.  My new knowledge of the song’s older identity made me want to look into some its older versions, some of which have lyrics in the Bahamian patois. 

According to Wikipedia, the song — known alternately as “Sloop John B.,” “John B. Sails,” “The Wreck of the John B.,” or “I Want to Go Home” — was first published under the title “The John B. Sails” as a transcription by Richard Le Gallienne in the December 1916 issue of Harper’s Monthly Magazine.  It was later included in Carl Sandburg’s folk-song collection The American Songbag (1927).  The tune was first recorded as “John B. Sail” by the American blues guitarist Arthur “Blind” Blake in 1930.  Here are a few other recordings:

In 1935, American field collector Alan Lomax recorded the Bahamas’ Cleveland Simmons Group singing the song under the title “Histe Up the John B.’s Sails”:

The version that first spread awareness of the song to a wide American audience was the Weavers’ “Wreck of the John B.” (1950):

Bahamian calypso artist Blake Alphonso Higgs sings “John B. Sails” (1952):

The tune’s most popular iteration up to that time was the Kingston Trio’s “Sloop John B.” (1958):

This was followed by Johnny Cash’s “I Want to Go Home” (1959):

Pop singer Jimmie Rodgers made arguably the first rock & roll adaptation with “Wreck of the John B.” (1960):

Lonnie Donegan’s skiffle version, “I Wanna Go Home (Wreck of the John B.)” (1961):

As Wikipedia says, Beach Boys member Al Jardine, a folk music fan, was impressed with the version sung by the Kingston Trio and persuaded Brian Wilson to adapt the song for the group.  After some chord modifying and lyric changes, the Beach Boys came up with the song’s best-known rendition, “Sloop John B.” (1966):

No comments: