The air of the song, in the Dorian Mode and in duple march rhythm, has been compared to the style of a bagpipe melody. The authorship and origin of "Drunken Sailor" are unknown. However, the melody does sound quite similar to the chorus of the traditional Irish ballad "Óró sé do bheatha abhaile", and a possible adaptation may be suspected.
You can listen to a version by Denis Cox, recorded in 1928 for the Parlophone-label (E3562)
"What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor" is also closely related to "Sinner Man"
In the USA, the tune is also connected with other songs.
Reminiscent songs to "Drunken Sailor" from the text above:
"Columbus" (from John Cole's Selection of Favourite Cotillions (1824))
"The Monkey's Wedding" (Published by Firth & Hall between 1832-1847)
"John Brown Had a Little Injun" (Published by Oliver Ditson in 1849)
"Ten Little Injuns" (Published in 1868)
A Ukrainian folk song entitled "The Cossack" in the minor version is rather similar to the minor version of "Drunken Sailor".
"The Cossack" was published by Rt. Birchall in London in 1806 (On page 30 of "A collection of Melodies, chiefly Russian")
There is some indication that the shanty "Drunken Sailor" is at least as old as the 1820s.
In Eckstorm and Smyth's collection Minstrelsy of Maine (published 1927), the editors note that one of their grandmothers, who sang the song, claimed to have heard it used during the task of tacking (i.e. "walking away" with braces) on the Penobscot River “probably considerably over a hundred years ago".
"What shall we do with the drunken sailor?...
So early in the morning?
Put him in the long-boat and let him bail her;
Ay, ay, up she rises!"
There's also a reference in a work of fiction by Charles Dickens from 1855 in which a drunken female cook is portrayed singing,
"Hee roar, up she rouses,
What shall we do with the drunken sailor?"
(From "Two Dinner Failures." Household Words No. 256 (15 September 1855): 164-168.)
A five-verse set of lyrics and tune were published on page 46 in the third edition of Davis and Tozer's shanty collection "Sailor Songs or Chanties" (1906)
When John Masefield next published the lyrics in "A Sailors Garland" (1906), he called it a "bastard variety" of shanty which was "seldom used" an assertion supported by the lack of many earlier references. This style of shanty, called a "runaway chorus" by Masefield, and as a "walk away" or "stamp and go" shanty by others, was said to be used for tacking and which was sung in "quick time".
The verses in Masefield's version asked what to do with a "drunken sailor", followed by a response, then followed by a question about a "drunken soldier", with an appropriate response.
Cecil Sharp collected the chanty in his book English Folk-Chanteys (1914)
He learned it from James Tucker, who seems to have been a sailor from Bristol of the 1900s or later.
It is song #7 on page 8:
"What shall we do with a drunken sailor?
What shall we do with a drunken sailor?
What shall we do with a drunken sailor
Early in the morning?
Way ay and up she rises,
Way ay and up she rises,
Way ay and up she rises
Early in the morning.
Put him in the long-boat till he gets sober.
Keep him there and make him bail her"
On page 66/ 67 Cecil Sharp gives a more detailed explanation odf the song
So, according to Sharp, the song was sung in different modes in the course of time, including:
Also, according to Sharp, the song in this Mixolydian mode, was printed in "Songs of Sea Labour" (1914) by Frank T. Bullen: It is song # 17 on page 16:
As Sharp also says, the song, in this Mixolydian mode, was sung to him in London by Mr George Humpreys.
Cecil Sharp regarded this as the normal form of the tune
The song became popular in America in the beginning of the 20th Century. A catalogue of "folk-songs" from the Midwest included it in 1915, where it was said to be sung while dancing "a sort of reel".
More evidence of lands-folk's increasing familiarity with "Drunken Sailor" comes in the recording of a "Drunken Sailor Medley" (1923) by U.S. Old Time fiddler John Baltzell.
This version though, has not the familiar tune of later versions.
Evidently the tune's shared affinities with Anglo-Irish-American dance tunes helped it to become readapted as such, as Baltzell included it among a set of reels.
"Drunken Sailor" began its life as a popular song "on land" at least as early as the 1900s, by which time it had been adopted as repertoire for glee singing at Eton College.
Elsewhere in England, by the 1910s, men had begun to sing it regularly at gatherings of the Savage Club of London.
Australian composer Percy Grainger incorporated the song into his piece "Scotch Strathspey And Reel" (1924)
THE EARLIEST RECORDINGS OF THE TUNE I COULD FIND:
(c) Kenneth Ellis and chorus (before 1926)
The Drunken Sailor, Santy Anna, and Lowlands Away.
Parlophone have devoted three ten-inch records to sea shanties, the singers being Kenneth Ellis and a male quartet, while the accompaniment is provided by a string quartet and flute,
(c) John Thorne and male trio and piano (1925) (as "The Drunken Sailor")
Recorded in London around October 1925.
Released on Aco G-15870
(c) Robert Carr and the Seafarers (1929) (as "The Drunken Sailor")
Edison Bell Velvet Face 1164
Robert Carr and the Seafarers, who sing shanties for the Edison Bell company, impart a welcome touch of vigour to their renderings, which is unfortunately somewhat rare in other recordings. This feature of their singing is particularly notable in "What shall we do with the drunken sailor?" which is paired with the amusing "Whisky Johnny" (V.F.1164).
(c) John Goss and the Cathedral Male Voice Quartet (1927)
(as "What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor")
Released on His Master's Voice B 2420.
In 1933 David Guion wrote a folk arrangement of this traditional song
“What To Do With a Drunken Sailor,” features a fragment of the nautical tune “Sailor's Hornpipe” that is familiar to anyone who has heard Gilbert and Sullivan's "H.M.S. Pinafore" or the cartoons "Popeye" or "Sponge Bob Square Pants".
(c) Richard Maitland (1939) (as "What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor")
Recorded at Sailors' Snug Harbor, Staten Island, NY, 1939. Recorded by Alan Lomax.
Released in 1952 by The Library of Congress (AAFS L 26), this is an album pressed on audiophile vinyl (you can hold it up to a bright light and see light shine through) that consists of field recordings, many of which were made by Alan Lomax in 1939, of American sea songs and shanties from the Archive of Folk Culture. These traditional songs were recorded with portable equipment in the field are sung and played by people who have learned them in the manner of folk lore handed down from their parents and neighbors. The collection comes with a booklet with lyrics and information about the titles origin and background info
Rereleased in the 1980's on the next album:
Or to a sample here:
(c) Richard Dyer-Bennet (1941) (as "What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor")
Released in 1941 on the album "Lute Singer - Ballads and Folk Songs"
Keynote Recordings album #108
Richard Dyer-Bennet had learned the song from David Lloyd Garrison in Santa Barbara in 1929.
(c) Georgian Singers (1941)
(c) Mordy Bauman (1946)
Released on the 78-album "Songs Of American Sailormen" (Musicraft-label)
Listen to a sample here:
(c) Leonard Warren (1948)
(c) Mel Day and the Melody Tune Toppers (1949)
Released on Imperial 1119
The main theme from the first movement of Dmitri Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major, Op. 102, which he composed in 1956/1957, mimics the song.
(c) Burl Ives (1956)
(c) Pete Seeger (1961)
(c) Ferre Grignard (1966)
The Belgian skiffle-singer Ferre Grignard covered the song in 1966.
(c) Babe (1980)
This Dutch girltrio scored a hit with "Drunken Sailor" in the Dutch Hitparade.
In Muppet Treasure Island (1996), Long John Silver (as played by Tim Curry) can be heard singing the song as Jim Hawkins, Gonzo, and Rizzo enter the galley.