The Dead Horse
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Lesley Nelson-Burns


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Lyrics
The Dead Horse was a ceremonial shanty sung at the end of a sailor's first month at sea. It was to celebrate the end of the sailor's debt to the ship - when he started working for himself.

The dead horse metaphor is from the practice of horse-trading. When a deal was made there was no going back, even if the horse died right after the deal was struck. So you could be paying for something that was never any use.

Sailor's were traditionally paid a month in advance when they signed on. With the advance he could pay for boots, knives, weather gear, etc. However many agents took the advance money and shanghaiied sailors aboard , other sailors spent the money on drink and women before sailing, and some were cheated out of it by merchants. So very often the sailor had nothing to show for a month's work. Hence, the "dead horse."

For the ceremony sailors fashioned horses of shipboard scrap to drag around the deck. They hoisted them aloft and threw them into the ocean.

A poor old man came riding by
Chorus 1
And we say so, and we hope so
A poor old man came riding by
Chorus 2
Oh, poor old horse.

Says I, "Old man, your horse will die."
Chorus 1
Says I, "Old man, your horse will die."
Chorus 2

And if he dies we'll tan his skin
Chorus 1
And if he don't we'll ride him again.
Chorus 2

For one long month I rode him hard
Chorus 1
For one long month we all rode him hard.
Chorus 2

But now your month is up, old Turk
Chorus 1
Get up, you swine, and look for work
Chorus 2

Get up you swine and look for graft
Chorus 1
While we lays on and drags ye aft
Chorus 2

He's as dead as a nail in the lamp-room door
Chorus 1
And he won't come worring us no more
Chorus 2

We'll use the hair of his tail to sew our sails
Chorus 1
And the iron of his shoe to make deck nails
Chorus 2

We'll hoist him up to the fore yard-arm
Chorus 1
Where he won't do sailors any harm
Chorus 2

We'll drop him down with a long, long roll
Chorus 1
Where the sharks will have his body and the
Devil take his soul.
Related Links
From Songs of the Sailor
See Bibliography for full information.