The dead horse

Music: Trad. arr. Sheena Phillips. Words: Trad.
TBB, piano
performance time approx 2m 30s
Range T: g – d' / Bar: d – c' / B: G – c'
Price code: B
Complexity: **

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This piece is part of the set Six sea shanties
The next piece is All for me grog
If you don't want to buy the whole set, then you can buy The dead horse individually using the link on this page.
This ceremonial shanty was traditionally sung after 30 days at sea, as part of a ritual in which the effigy of a horse (made from canvas and straw) was hoisted to the main yardarm and tossed into the sea. Sailors were generally given an advance of one month’s wages before boarding, but this usually got spent entirely on paying off debt, buying equipment and clothing for the voyage, and (in many cases) drinking and loose living on shore. So for the first month at sea, most sailors had little or nothing to show for their money - in an expression borrowed from horse-trading, it was like ‘buying a dead horse’. The day when they had worked off their advance and started earning some real pay was cause for celebration — and the burial of the dead horse.

You can read a description of this ritual in the journal of William Harris, who travelled from London to Auckland, New Zealand, in 1879, aboard the British Empire. See the entry for 1 December in


They say old man your horse will die,
And they say so and they hope so.
They say old man your horse will die,
O poor old horse!

For thirty days we've ridden him,
And when he dies we'll tan his skin.

And if he lives we'll ride him again,
We'll ride him with a tighter rein.

It's up aloft the horse must go,
We'll hoist him up and bury him low.

We’ll hoist him up to the main yardarm,
We’ll hoist him up to the main yardarm,

Then drop him down to the depths of the sea,
Then drop him down to the depths of the sea.

And now he's gone he's buried deep,
And now he's gone he's buried deep.

Purchase – 2043: The dead horse

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