Poor Old Man (Poor Old Horse; The Dead Horse)
DESCRIPTION: Shanty. Characteristic line: "For they say so and they know so... Oh, poor old (horse/man)." The sailor meets an old man with an old horse; they exchange comments about the horse's (and humanity's) fate. Alternate chorus: "And I say so/And we hope so"
EARLIEST DATE: before 1845 (broadside, Bodleian Johnson Ballads 768)
KEYWORDS: shanty horse
FOUND IN: Britain(England(South)) US(MA,NE) Canada(Mar,Newf)
REFERENCES (18 citations):
Doerflinger, p. 14, "Poor Old Man" (1 text, 1 tune)
Colcord, pp. 63-64, "Poor Old Man" (1 text, 1 tune)
Harlow, pp. 68-69, 84, "Poor Old Man," "The Dead Horse," "Poor Old Joe" (3 texts, 2 tunes)
Hugill, pp. 554-555, "The Dead Horse" (1 text, 1 tune) [AbEd, pp. 389-392]
Sharp-EFC, XLVII, p. 52, "The Dead Horse" (1 text, 1 tune)
Gray, pp. 104-106, "The Poor Old Horse," "The Poor Old Man" (1 texts)
Linscott, pp. 134-135, "The Dead Horse" (1 short text, 1 tune)
Sandburg, p. 406, "The Dead Horse" (1 text, 1 tune)
Smith/Hatt, p. 25, "Say Old Man" (1 text)
Bone, p. 50, "The 'Dead Horse' Chanty" (1 short text, 1 tune)
Shay-SeaSongs, p. 16, "The Dead Horse" (1 text)
Terry-Shanty1, #23, "The Dead Horse" (1 text, 1 tune)
Morris, #24, "O Johnny Come to Hilo" (1 text, which appears to mix the chorus of "Johnny Walk Along to Hilo" with words from "Poor Old Man (Poor Old Horse; The Dead Horse)")
MHenry-Appalachians, p. 237, (no title) (1 fragment, probably this)
Williams-Thames, pp. 155-156, "Poor Old Horse" (2 texts) (also Wiltshire-WSRO Ox 217; Wiltshire-WSRO Wt 312)
ADDITIONAL: Robert Bell, editor, Ancient Poems, Ballads and Songs of the Peasantry of England (London, 1857 ("Digitized by Google")), pp. 184-186, "The Mummers' Song; or The Poor Old Horse" (1 text) "as sung by the Mummers in the Neighbourhood of Richmond, Yorkshire, at the merrie time of Christmas"
Captain John Robinson, "Songs of the Chantey Man," a series published July-August 1917 in the periodical _The Bellman_ (Minneapolis, MN, 1906-1919). A fragment titled "Poor Old Joe" is in Part 2, 7/21/1917.
Tom Cornelly, "Poor Old Man" (on MUNFLA/Leach)
Capt. Leighton Robinson, "The Dead Horse" (AFS, 1951; on LC26)
Leighton Robinson w. Alex Barr, Arthur Brodeur & Leighton McKenzie, "Poor Old Man" (AFS 4229 B, 1939; in AMMEM/Cowell)
Bodleian, Johnson Ballads 768, "The Old Horse" ("My cloathing once was linsey wolsey fine"), J. Pitts (London), 1819-1844; also Firth c.18(208), Harding B 11(3712), Harding B 25(1539), Johnson Ballads 2763 [some words illegible], Firth c.19(93), Firth c.19(94), 2806 c.17(345) [some words lost], "[The] Poor Old Horse"
LOCSinging, sb30437a, "Poor Old Horse let him die" ("My clothing once, alas my friends, was linsey woolsey fine"), H. De Marsan (New York), 1864-1878; also as100480, "My Old Horse" [fragment]
cf. "Poor Old Horse III" (plot)
cf. "Old Marse John" (floating lyrics)
cf. "Charleston Gals (Clear the Kitchen)" (floating lyrics)
cf. "Johnny Booker" (lyrics)
cf. "The Salt Horse Song"
cf. "I Whipped My Horse"
cf. "Dumpty Moore"
NOTES: When a boarding master supplied a sailor to a ship, he received an advance from the sailor's pay (for background on this, see the notes to "Dixie Brown" [Laws D7]). Thus the sailor had to work for some weeks or months before he began to earn money for himself. This was known as "working off the dead horse." Often sailors celebrated in some way when the dead horse was finally disposed of, and this song celebrates the process. - RBW
Thirty days out, sailors would sometimes make a horse-figure from rags and tar, hoist it to the yardarm, cut it loose and let it drift away on the sea, a ritual known as "burying the dead horse." A good captain would break out a ration of rum at this time. A sailor of my acquaintance reported that 100 days out, on a U.S. Navy carrier, the men would be given a ration of two cans of beer, and this was still known as the "dead horse." - PJS
Bone says of this that it is "the only chanty I know composed definitely for entertainment." - RBW
The Wiltshire-WSRO Ox 217 text adds a verse to the Williams-Thames text on p. 155. The Wiltshire-WSRO Wt 312 text adds a toast to the poor old horse to the Williams-Thames text on p. 156.
Bell (not cribbing this time from Dixon 1846): "As sung by the Mummers in the Neighborhood of Richmond, Yorkshire, at the merrie time of Christmas. The rustic actor who sings the following song is dressed as an old horse, and at the end of every verse the jaws are snapped in chorus. It is a very old composition, and is now printed for the first time. The 'old horse' is, probably, of Scandinavian origin, -- a reminiscence of Odin's Sleipnor." - BS
The link with Sleipnor strikes me as dubious at best -- Sleipnor, or Sleipnir, was a "magnificent beast," the offspring of Loki, ridden by Hermod when he went to Hel to try to release Balder from death (Sykes/Kendall, p. 179). In Snorri's Prose Edda, it is called the best of all the AEsir's horses and is said to have eight legs (Snorri/Young, p. 43). It appears Sleipnir is still alive at the end of the Edda (Snorri/Young, p. 66). Also, Sleipnir could run over sea as well as land (Benet, p. 1039). His teeth were somehow notable, but why is not clear (Edda/Terry, p. 164).
Broadside LOCSinging sb30437a: H. De Marsan dating per Studying Nineteenth-Century Popular Song by Paul Charosh in American Music, Winter 1997, Vol 15.4, Table 1, available at FindArticles site. - BS
Last updated in version 4.2
- Benet: William Rose Benet, editor, The Reader's Encyclopdedia, first edition, 1948 (I use the four-volume Crowell edition but usually check it against the single volume fourth edition edited by Bruce Murphy and published 1996 by Harper-Collins; however, this entry was deleted from the latter)
- Edda/Terry: Patricia Terry, translator, Poems of the Elder Edda, revised edition, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990
- Snorri/Young: Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda: Tales from Norse Mythology, translated from Icelanding by Jean I. Young, University of California, 1954 (I used the 1973 reprint)
- Sykes/Kendall: Egerton Sykes, Who's Who in Non-Classical Mythology, with new material edited by Alan Kendall, Oxford, 1952, 1993
Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography
The Ballad Index Copyright 2017 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.