Sloop John B.- what's it about, really?

“Sloop John B.” is far and away my favorite Beach Boys song, even sits higher on my list than “I’m Bugged at My Old Man”. But, well, I’ve become increasingly certain that the song is not just about a bad boat ride. The unpleasant oceanic voyage is a metaphor for something far deeper. My main inclination right now is that it’s about a bad acid trip (this is the worst trip I’ve ever been on).

But I wonder, is there something more subtle that I’m missing? Am I reaching for a drug reference when there’s something a bit more mystical going on here?

What is "Sloop John B. " really about?

Well, remember it’s not a Beach Boys Pet Sounds 1966 original. It’s an over-a-hundred-years-old New England folk song. Like most folk songs, it’s probably pretty straightforward and lacks a deep underlying mystical subtext.

Carl Sandburg collected it in “The American Songbag” in 1927. I thought it was more associated with the Carribean than New England, as per the notes here:

I always thought it was about getting drunk and busted while on a sailing vacation in the Bahamas.

I am tone-deaf to subtexts.

Well, to begin with, the Beach Boys themselves didn’t even want it to be on Pet Sounds… Capitol execs made them add it to the record. That makes any secondary reading of a pretty straightforward folk song pretty unlikely.

It’s just a nice cover of an old song about a bad boat trip. The Kingston Trio did it as well, although it has a different feel than the Beach Boys one, which is upbeat.


This is all so disappointing…

I am a soft spot in my heart for the song because our 8th grade class had to sing it for a school music presentation.

Yabob: My reference source isn’t that great; it’s Kathleen Krull’s GONNA SING MY HEAD OFF: AMERICAN FOLK SONGS FOR CHILDREN (Knopf 1992). Krull says the song is “believed to come from New England” without elaborating, although she points out the calypso-like rhythms and references to the Bahama Islands. I’m assuming it’s all part of the old Triangle Trade.

Thea: Well, if it cheers you up, we can deconstruct it…

Okay, “My grandfather and me.” This is clearly a Shaman figure, a psychedelic guru in charge of the hero of the song. “Nassau Town” ties in with West Indian Voodoo ritual. “Drinking all night, got into a fight” means taking LSD (usually administered dissolved in a liquid; resultant mental disruption and ego-death simulates a physical altercation of several hours’ duration). The Cook who throws away all of the grits and eats up all of the corn is the chemist who distills the hallucinogen; the grits/corn dichotomy is an allusion to the emotional confusion of the “bad trip.” “Hoist up the *John B. *sails…let me go home” refers to the wish for an unpleasant psychedelic experience to be over and done with, and um, the “sails” part is an allusion to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Weekend White Sale, where the protagonist hopes to purchase discounted sheets and pillowcases.

I recently bought a Pet Sounds reissue. The extensive liner notes, by the author of book on Beach Boys music, say that Brian Wilson included ‘Sloop John B’ in an early list of tracks for the album, weeks before it became a successful single. “The track listing proves the inclusion of ‘Sloop John B’ on Pet Sounds was strictly Brian’s choice,” the author concludes.

I’ll let others discuss the song’s meaning, since I’m not that familiar with the lyrics.

Hey, so did my 8th grade class. At the time I thought it was a hokey song, but now I like it. The lyrics have stuck with me all these years.

Motorgirl, formerly of central NY - maybe our music teachers knew each other, or worked from the same handbook.

Thanks, Uke, I feel better now.

I too learned it in my 7th grade music class – in West Virginia, but our teacher was from Kane, PA, near Erie.

This is weird, ‘Eerie’ even…

The beach boys are hardly faithful to the original. The revisions certainly appear euphemistic of drug usage.

“I feel so broke up”… appropriate for zombies.

Which begs the question of why they didn’t pull a Fogerty and and perform it as “The Sloop Cap. C.”

I think it’s about incest. “Hoist up the sail” is code for “pull down your pants”. “See how the mainsail sets” – well, there’s an erection right there. :stuck_out_tongue:

Those lyrics had been in use at least 8 years prior to their cover, they only changed a few words from The Kingston Trio’s version. Barry McGuire, on the other hand, rearranged a few things in '65 and had the corn not being eaten by the cook but drank by the first mate. McGuire also dropped the “worst trip” line altogether.

I recall hearing a clip of an interview with Al Jardine in which he claimed that it was he who suggested that they do the song and campaigned (I think against some initial resistance from Brian) for it to be released (though that may have been with respect to the single, rather than its inclusion on Pet Sounds). Al also contributed to the arrangement, according to Wikipedia.

The Wikipedia article also says confirms that the song’s inclusion on the album was Brian’s choice and that the notion that it was forced by the record company is a myth.

zombie or no

it’s a folk song. people make folk songs about the mashed potatoes on their dinner plate (the same goes for poetry).

It’s a song about a wild party on a boat in Nassau. The boat sunk.