A bully ship and a bully crew,
A bully mate and a captain, too,
Then blow, ye winds, hi-oh,
There’s plenty of gold, so I’ve been told,
On the banks of Sacramento!
Oh, heave, my lads, oh heave and sing,
Oh, heave and make those oak sticks sing.
Our money gone, we shipped to go,
Around Cape Horn, through ice and snow.
Oh, around the Horn with a mainskys’l set
Around Cape Horn and we’re all wringin’ wet.
Around Cape Horn in the month of May,
With storm winds blowing every day.
It was in the year eighteen forty-nine,
It was in the year eighteen forty-nine.
This is an interesting demonstration of what happens when different cultures meet. The song is a sea chanty, but it’s about the gold rush!
The story begins, most likely, with Stephen Foster’s hit “Camptown Races,” published in 1850. According to Doerflinger, p. 67, this came to be mixed with a Hutchinson Family verse,
Then ho! Brothers ho!
To California go.
There’s plenty of gold in the world, we’re told
On the banks of the Sacramento.
Sailors taking “Forty-Niners” from the East Coast to San Francisco presumably heard this and adopted it as a shanty. It does not seem to have originally been sung to Foster’s tune; Gale Huntington in the 1849 journal of the whaler La Grange found the lyric
Then ho boys ho to California go
For the mountains bold are covered with gold
On the banks of the Sacramento
High ho away we go
Digging up gold in Frisco.
(For the full text, see Huntington, pp. 175-176)
This might explain why the song now seems to be sung to several tunes that aren’t Foster’s. I’ve met it to the well-known and rather similar melody of “A Capital Ship,” and I also seem to recall hearing it to the tune of Kerry Mills and Thurland Chattaway’s 1907 hit “Red Wing” (named for a fictional girl, not the town).
The “oak sticks” of the second verse (from Walton) are said to refer to the bars of the capstan.
Although widely associated with sailors, the song was also sung by folks ashore — e.g. Mary O. Eddy found an Ohio version, while the Warners picked it up from Lena Bourne Fish of New Hampshire.
Source: Ideally I’d like to use the version collected by Ivan H. Watson in Michigan, and printed on page 39 of Walton/Grimm; this version is known to have been sung by Great Lakes sailors. But it may be under copyright. So this is a version combined from the texts of Walton, Doerflinger (pp. 68-70), Colcord (pp. 105-106), and some of the myriad verses in Hugill (who even has a German variant, along with a large collection of dirty lyrics. He also notes that sailors sometimes sang the lyrics to “Camptown Races” as part of the shanty).
For those who care, the Walton version is similar to verses 2, 1, 3, 5.