The Lyrics and Story behind The Whaleboat


Bruce Pomeroy was inspired to encourage everyone to share lyrics to songs that we sing all the time.  I had no trouble choosing this song as my first to write about -- The Whaleboat.


I wrote The Whaleboat  several years back and incorporated elements that give it a feeling of authenticity, which I'll explain below.  It started as a made up melody that I was banging out on my guitar in the kitchen when I was fueled by too much whisky and Charlene was not at home to reign me in.  The Whaleboat wasn't my first try at song writing, but this song has gotten favorable feedback from people I respect, and the Johnson Girls ( are thinking about performing The Whaleboat on stage.   I am hoping this song becomes part of the folk tradition.  Take a look at the lyrics, then I'll explain some of the content and references.  The parts for the chorus are  off-set and repeat for all verses.


The Whaleboat


Hey-ho, where you gonna go?

Gonna chase that whale until he blows

Hey-ho, where you gonna go? 

Gonna catch him when he slows.


Muster aft!

Lower away!

Take your seat!

And pull on the oar!


Gonna find a shore and a pretty little whore

Gonna live like a monk no more


Gonna a find a girl the eyes do please

Gonna take her on my knee!


Gonna find my way to the Old Brass Rail

Gonna drink a cask of ale!


Gonna cheer my mates with high class rum

Gonna drink ‘till the morning sun


Gonna find my way to a floating Bethel

Gonna pray we catch the whale


Gonna use Temple’s Iron to catch the whale

Gonna live to tell the tale


Gonna row this boat to hell below

Gonna find my way to Hilo


Gonna chase that whale until he blows

Gonna catch him when he slows



I started the song with the very masculine and all too realistic references to the women who survived in port cities by servicing sailors.  In family audiences, "whore" easily becomes "door" and actually leaves more to the imagination.  The "take her on my knee" phrase I stole from "The Jolly Wagoner,"  one of the great working-man songs performed by the Watersons.


Drinking seemed like a natural topic for the next couple of verses, and I slipped in the name of the college bar in Oneonta where I first saw Charlene,  "The Brass Rail."  Cheering mates with rum seemed about right for the whaling era.  I like the swagger found in many drinking songs, and I tried to capture that.


Barbara Benn, who attended GGG with Jeff Warner,  inspired the verse about a floating Bethel.  At a session during the Portsmouth Maritime Festival in a September long ago, she taught us about the civilian effort to bring religion to sailors.  Floating Bethels originally were barges in the Ohio River.  In Moby Dick a seaman's bethel is immortalized as a church for seaman with a pulpit in the shape of a bow (a Melville invention) -- now a tourist site, the Whaleman's Chapel in New Bedford, MA.  Bethels like in the song were held in old ships with room for services and anchored in a busy harbor.  Floating bethels were seen in the harbors of such cities as Baltimore and Cleveland.  Bethels on land were established as far away as Sydney by 1822 and many still exist today.  The sailors had reason to pray.  The goal of a whaleboat crew was to latch on a whale and ride the attached whaleboat at high speeds until the whale died or the boat met with disaster.


Temple's Iron is shown in the photo below. Lewis Temple was the inventor of this whaling harpoon, known as "Temple's Toggle" and "Temple's Iron" that became the standard harpoon of the whaling industry in the middle of the 19th century. Lewis Temple was a skilled blacksmith, not a whaler.  In 1848, Lewis Temple invented a new type of harpoon, with a moveable head that prevented the whale from slipping loose. Temple's Iron was more effective than any other harpoon that had ever been manufactured. The head on Temple's harpoon became locked in the whale's flesh, and the only way to free the harpoon was to cut it loose after the whale was killed… Temple died destitute in May 1854, at the age of 54.  To my great delight, we found several authentic Temple's Irons in the large dining room at Salty's where we used to hold first-Wednesday sings.


Temple’s Iron (tip of harpoon)


Back to women for the last verse.  At the Portsmouth Shanty Festival in 2010, the famous shanty performer, Bob Webb, who passed away recently, said Hilo was not a town in Hawaii or Peru.  Instead, hilo was an expression used by sailors that referred to what we call the “red light district” or perhaps the seedy side of downtown.  Negril, a town in Jamaica, has a market called Hi-Lo.  Alas, it is a shopping center and may have no historical roots.  Stan Hugill claims that Hilo is really Ilo, Peru, which was part of the nitrate trade. In this song I am imagining Hilo to be a  red light district. 


I imagine the "hey-ho" line as a rooky seaman asking questions of a seasoned seaman.  The commands -- "Muster aft!" and so on -- are mostly authentic and come from Seamanship In The Age of Sail (1984).  I like the way the chorus of commands gives urgency to the task of catching the whale.


The song is sung with a driving rhythm of a sweep oar (single oar) rower.  I find the song is just perfect when I need a little oomph on the rowing machine at the YMCA.


Paul Schurr