Using “Drunken Sailor” to Teach Kids

Making the Most of Singing with Children

Sailor-Boy.jpg
Image courtesy of State Library Victoria Collections via flickr cc license

With so many fans of sea creatures and pirates, “Drunken Sailor,” may become your child’s next favorite song. The traditional lyrics peak curiosity with their inclusion of sailing terms, while creating original verses can further enhance reading skills and provide a creative outlet for children. Here is all you need to get you started making Drunken Sailor a family or classroom favorite.

Drunken Sailor Lyrics: “Drunken Sailor,” is one of the best known sea shanties and has been around for a long time.

For that reason, many versions of the lyrics exist. The chorus, however, tends to be the same in most recordings:

What shall we do with a drunken sailor [3 times]?
Early in the mornin’
Way, hey, Up she rises [3 times].
Early in the mornin’

Educational Verses: Though making up your own verses promotes creativity and literacy, traditional versions will teach kids about sailing, history, and more. For instance, “Put him in the scuppers with a hose-pipe on him,” means you are placing the sailor in the part of the ship that allows water to drain back to the sea. Though the Irish Rovers version of Drunken Sailor has the most views on you tube, the version Pete Seeger records includes the traditional verses. Here are additional verses you might sing and what you might consider teaching about them:

  1. Chuck him in the long boat till he’s sober, Pull out the plug and wet him all over, Keep him there and make ‘im bail ‘er:
    1. A long boat is an extra boat used to pull a ship in times of bad weather and is sea worthy by itself. Kids might be interested to know that in the past, the only way to resist the wind was the brute force of a group of sailors. Bailing the boat meant the sailor was emptying it of water, most likely for many hours using a bucket.
    2. You may also draw or write each verse on separate papers and allow kids to arrange the sequence of events.
    1. Put/Lock him in the guard room 'til he gets sober:
      1. Many rumors exist about jurisdiction when out to sea. You may explain to your child that the captain is in charge of the ship when out to sea, so it is like a small village, but they are bound by the law of whatever country’s flag they fly.
    2. Tie him to the taffrail when she's yardarm under:
      1. The taffrail is in the front of the ship and sometimes has a carved decoration, such as a mermaid. The yard of the boat is where the sails are connected and the yardarm is its ‘arms’ or tips of the yard. If the yardarm is under, then the boat is tilted. Taffrail and yardarm are just two of many vocabulary words specific to sailing.
    1. Heave him by the leg in a runnin' bowline:
      1. A bowline is one of the most commonly used sailing knots. It does not slip, but is easily untied. Sail magazine posts this help on how to create one on their website: “The rabbit comes out of the hole, goes around back of the tree, and then jumps back into the hole.”
    2. Give 'im a dose of salt and water.
      1. Children may not know that drinking sea water will make you sick, because it has too much salt in it for the kidneys to handle.
    3. Stick on his back a mustard plaster.
      1. A poultice made of mustard seed was a common cure for aches and pains, but left on too long can burn the skin. Kids should know there are many ways to heal our bodies and that current medical practices are influenced by profit. Though we should not be distrustful of modern remedies, ancient ones may work just as well or better.

    Personalizing Drunken Sailor: Verses express various punishments a drunken sailor may be given. Make it fun by creating your own! Just repeat what you will do three times and end with, “early in the mornin’.” Your kids do not care how good the lyrics are, just that they helped create them. Here is an example of some kid oriented lyrics:

    Take his gold and spend it on popcorn
    Dress him in PJ’s and drive him all over
    Take a lot of pictures and post it all over
    Ask ‘em who it is when he’s sober
    Watch him run screamin’ after it’s over
    Don’t drink too much or else you’ll be sorry

    I might even write a verse for September 19th like this: “Take him to Krispy Kreme dressed as a woman,” and “Make him eat donuts ‘til he’s green like Kermit.”