Boney was a warrior, Way-ay YUP!
A warrior and a tarrier, John Fran-SWAR!
Boney fought the Rooshians,
The Rooshians and the Prooshians.
Boney went to Moscow,
And lost his army in the snow.
Boney went to Elbow (=Elba)
And Boney he came back again.
Boney went to Waterloo
And there he got his overthrow.
Then they took him off again
Aboard the Billy Ruffian (=Bellerophon).
Away in Saint Elen-i-a (=Helena)
Boney broke his heart and died.
This song is interesting both for its form and for its content. In form, it is a sea chanty (or shanty; however you spell it, it’s pronounced “shanty”). These were songs sailors used for a particular task — for example, to help them time their hauls on a rope or their shoves on a capstan. Stan Hugill, the last real expert on chantys, thought this both a halyard song and a short haul chanty. This version is a short haul chanty; the sailors would pull on Yup! and Swar! To get the feeling across, you could have kids clap on the haul syllables.
The song is a good short summary of the later career of Napoleon: His chief enemies on land were Russia, Prussia, and Austria (all of whom also allied with him at one time or another as well). In 1812, he invaded Russia, and reached Moscow, but saw his army destroyed. Two years later, having failed to defend France, he went into exile on Elba, only to return for the “Hundred Days” in 1815, ending in the Battle of Waterloo. He fled into British custody, was taken into exile on the Bellerophon, and died on Saint Helena.
Source: I have heard many recordings of this; I think the one I know best is by John Roberts and Tony Barrand. I have used their tune. The fullest set of lyrics is in Hugill’s authoritative Shanties from the Seven Seas, but this text is a combination of what I remember with the version in Joanna C. Colcord’s Songs of American Sailormen.
ADDENDUM: Since the Heritage Songbook was printed, it has come to my attention that this song has been collected on the Great Lakes. Ivan H. Walton and Joe Grimm,Windjammers: Songs of the Great Lakes Sailors, Wayne State University Press, 2002, p. 79, prints a composite version. Most of it is from Harry and George Parmalee of Waukeegan, Illinois, who learned it on Lake Michigan; they also had a stanza from Captain William E. (“Billy”) Clark of Buffalo. The Parmalees had a text which shares many lines with this one. Clark’s verse is fascinating:
Boney never hit New York,
Boney’s life was cut too short.
The Parmalee tune is fairly similar to the one here, but pitched in minor, with consequent tonal changes.