I have no idea where or when I first heard “Sloop John B.” a.k.a. “John B. Sails” — it could have been in elementary school or at the singalongs Phyllis Switzer led every summer at the MBL Club in Woods Hole, or any number of other places. It’s in the Cisco Houston songbook, but I don’t recall ever hearing his version, and I always thought of it as a kids’ song until I heard Joseph Spence do it. Of course, I was wrong about that; it was one of the most popular anthems of the fishermen working out of Nassau, as described in a 1916 Harper’s Monthly Magazine article by an English poet named Richard Le Gallienne. That version was five verses long, but Cisco and Phyllis and pretty much everyone else just sing the three-verse version Carl Sandburg included in his American Songbag. Sandburg wrote that he had learned it from friends who lived in Nassau, but his three verses are identical to the first three in the Harper’s piece, which makes me suspicious…
Le Gallienne wrote, in the typical prose of the time, “These Negro songs of Nassau, though crude as to words, have a very haunting, barbaric melody, said to come straight from the African jungle, full of hypnotizing repetitions and absurd choruses, which, though they may not attract you much at first, end by getting into your blood, so that you often find yourself humming them unawares. The best known of them…is ‘The John B. Sails.'”
By the time I heard the song, the melody was more boring than barbaric, and when I heard the Beach Boys’ version, that didn’t help. But then I heard Joseph Spence do it. I’d heard his guitar playing already, on the Folkways album Sam Charters recorded, which was in a box of records my half-brother David left with us for a year or two. The Folkways album didn’t include much singing, and I didn’t really understand Spence’s music until I saw a poster in the Harvard Coop, when I was twelve, saying that he and Mance Lipscomb would be at the Harvard Student Union. I didn’t recognize his name, but I knew Lipscomb’s, so I went, and that was that.
I sing the usual Sandburg verses, but play roughly Spence’s guitar accompaniment — anyone who has heard Spence knows why I don’t sing his lyrics, and anyone who has not heard Spence should immediately hear him. He recorded “John B Sails” for Arhoolie, and if you don’t know his work, I have a guide to his recordings on my Spence page (which also has info about my how-to-play-Spence DVD). He may be my favorite guitarist ever, and I’ll be playing more of his arrangements before this project is finished (so far, I’ve done “The Glory of Love“). I’m the first to admit that no one else plays them like he did, but it’s a lot of fun to try.