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Sailing Ships, from "Sloop John B," a rock song by The Beach Boys

Subthemes: Charters and Racing, Types of Sail Boats, Sailors' Job

For what turned out to be a regrettable vacation around the Bahamas, a grandfather and grandson chartered a sloop, the John B. The sloop’s first mate and cook went rogue and the Captain is nowhere to be found. The grandson, who drank his way into troubles with the law, begs to go home. What else does this dejected ballad suggest about Sailing Ships?

Listen to a live performance of Sloop John B by the Beach Boys.

We come on the Sloop John B
My grandfather and me
Around Nassau town we did roam
Drinking all night
Got into a fight
Well I feel so broke up
I want to go home
So hoist up the John B’s sail
See how the main sail sets
Call for the Captain ashore
Let me go home, let me go home
I want to go home, yeah yeah
Well I feel so broke up
I want to go home

The first mate he got drunk
And broke in the Cap’n’s trunk
The constable had to come and take him away
Sheriff John Stone
Why don’t you leave me alone, yeah yeah
Well I feel so broke up, I want to go home

So hoist up the John B’s sail
See how the main sail sets
Call for the Captain ashore
Let me go home, let me go home
I want to go home, let me go home
Why don’t you let me go home
(Hoist up the John B’s sail)
I feel so broke up I want to go home
Let me go home

The poor cook he caught the fits
And threw away all my grits
And then he took and he ate up all of my corn
Let me go home
Why don’t they let me go home
This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on

[second stanza omitted]

Source: LyricFind

Charters and Racing: What a wonderful idyl to hire a handsome sloop and a small crew for a vacation in the balmy waters of the Bahamas! To be sure, accommodations on the John B were tight. According to Wikipedia, a sloop is a sailboat with a single mast typically having only one headsail in front of it and one mainsail aft of (behind) it. Offering hardly a yacht or cruise line’s luxury, to be sure, but a wonderful way to enjoy quiet, the salt air, and sunny warm weather.

Here is a modern sloop. from TripSavvy.

Aside from sailing your boat or hiring others to sail you, many people get their jollies (rogers?) from racing their sail boats. In fact, a regatta is the term for a sailing yacht race. Today, specially designed racing ships, hydrofoil catamarans known as “foilers,” can exceed 50 miles an hour. They can skim the waves faster than the wind pushing them! (Don’t ask me.)

Types of Sail Boats: Sloops are one of a dozen types of sailboats that can be seen on this chart. Old Ironsides, by the way, is a wooden-hulled, three-masted heavy frigate,. One can only imagine that throughout the world, countless other kinds of riggings and masts evolved. As a side note, a jib is a type of sail. At one time ships of a country would display their country’s unique jibs, allowing outsiders to know the ship’s origin, and form an impression of it by the “cut of its jib”.

Sailors’ Job: The Beach Boys sing about a choice, a vacation under sail. And during centuries of sails, many young men went to sea because of the perceived adventure and romance, the opportunity to see the world, the craving to escape their difficult life, or the pay. Others, however, were forced to endure virtual slavery “before the mast,” toiling as an ordinary seaman in a sailing ship (quartered in the forecastle). The terms “shanghai” and “press gang” speak to the dark practices of kidnapping young men into service on a naval ship. The day-to-day grind of a junior seaman was harsh, with cruel discipline, long hours of cleaning and repairing, and deplorable physical conditions. For example, clambering up wet masts to set sails in stormy seas risked serious injury or death. The captain wielded autocratic control. Months at sea had periods of downtime so sailors created elaborate knots, carved scrimshaw, or sang sea shanties. Time in port was cherished.


A sad ballad of disappointment on board, The Sloop John B hints at the fun of sailboats: pleasure excursions, charter voyages, and racing competitions. Boats of every kind have evolved to satisfy needs for pleasure and work. But cinematic confections of merry sailors hides the truth that many sailors suffered difficult conditions onboard ships.

If you are interested in other thoughts on the concept “Sail Ships,” consider other subthemes that don’t fit as directly to the poem, painting, rock song, and movie written about in this series. For an overview, this article explains Themes from Art or click on the navigation bar, “About.”

We invite you to read about other rock songs discussed on this blog, and their themes. Here they are:

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