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#1
Old 11-23-2002, 09:28 PM
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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?
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#2
Old 11-23-2002, 09:35 PM
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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.
#3
Old 11-23-2002, 09:58 PM
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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:

http://oldtownschool.org/Resource/songnotes_S.html
Quote:
Although the pop group, “The Beach Boys” brought this Bahamian folk song to international popularity in the 1960s, the story behind the “Sloop John B.,” or as it's originally called, “The John B. Sails,” goes way, way back.
Around 1926, John T. McCutcheon and his wife learned to sing this song while spending time in the West Indies. McCutcheon was a world traveller, philosopher and the Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune. He said of “The John B. Sails” that, “Time and usage have given the song almost the dignity of a national anthem around Nassau.”
#4
Old 11-23-2002, 09:59 PM
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I always thought it was about getting drunk and busted while on a sailing vacation in the Bahamas.

I am tone-deaf to subtexts.
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#5
Old 11-23-2002, 10:05 PM
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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.

-fh
#6
Old 11-24-2002, 08:10 AM
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This is all so disappointing...
#7
Old 11-24-2002, 10:29 AM
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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.
#8
Old 11-24-2002, 10:39 AM
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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.
#9
Old 11-24-2002, 11:32 AM
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Quote:
Originally posted by hazel-rah
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
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.
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#10
Old 11-24-2002, 12:46 PM
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Quote:
Originally posted by Icerigger
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.
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.
#11
Old 11-24-2002, 01:57 PM
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Quote:
Originally posted by Ukulele Ike
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.
Thanks, Uke, I feel better now.
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#12
Old 11-24-2002, 02:22 PM
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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...

Quote:
Originally posted by Motorgirl
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.
#13
Old 09-13-2013, 10:32 AM
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Lyrics

The beach boys are hardly faithful to the original. The revisions certainly appear euphemistic of drug usage.
#14
Old 09-13-2013, 10:45 AM
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"I feel so broke up"... appropriate for zombies.
#15
Old 09-13-2013, 10:45 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by hazel-rah View Post
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.
Which begs the question of why they didn't pull a Fogerty and and perform it as "The Sloop Cap. C."
#16
Old 09-13-2013, 11:23 AM
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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.
#17
Old 09-13-2013, 11:32 AM
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Originally Posted by FlackJack View Post
The beach boys are hardly faithful to the original. The revisions certainly appear euphemistic of drug usage.
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.
#18
Old 09-13-2013, 12:22 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Clark K View Post
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.
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.
#19
Old 09-13-2013, 01:14 PM
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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).
#20
Old 09-13-2013, 01:21 PM
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It's a song about a wild party on a boat in Nassau. The boat sunk.
#21
Old 07-21-2015, 01:37 PM
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the real story of the Sloop John B

John Bethel was a sea Captain from Govenours Harbor, Eleuthera, The Bahamas. The "Sloop John B" was an actual boat (sloop) that Captain John Bethel built in the front yard of his house. He then rolled it down hill on logs and launched it into the harbour. Captain Bethel used the Sloop John B for many heays in commerce, both in The Bahamas and along the eastern seaboard of the United States, from Key West all the way up the New Foundland. At some point the boat hit a reef and sunk. Someone wrote a poem, the another someone put that poem to music. That song became a sailors sea song and was adapted widley and sang by many sailors. for many many years, depicting the drama on a typical sea voyage. Carl Sanburg, the famous American poet, found it and included it in a book he wrote about folk music. The Kingston Trio recorded it and made it popular in the states. Johnny Cash also recorded it as "I Wanna Go Home" before Al Jardine brought it to Mike Wilson in the late 1960's.

The rest is history.

Whome ever came up with the lyrics being about LSD was on dope themselves. It is nothing more that a sea-diddy sang by sailors.

In June of 2014, I stayed in the Sea Captains House, which is over 300 years old. This story is common knowledge on Eleuthera.

Go to VRBO and search for The Sea Captains House, Eleuthera. Angelicka Bacchus, a realtor and restruant owner on Eleuthera can tell you more details.

Last edited by scottburlin; 07-21-2015 at 01:40 PM.
#22
Old 07-21-2015, 01:42 PM
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In my head, the line "my grandfather and me" always conjured an image of a young kid who takes a job aboard a boat that his grandfather is working on, thinking that it'll be an easy gig. Instead, he gets into a fight with his grandfather, gets hazed by the crew as the new guy and is generally miserable -- wishing he could just "go home" which is of course impossible on a working vessel.

So, basically, a stock Deadliest Catch plot line decades before anyone cared about crab fishing.
#23
Old 07-21-2015, 02:22 PM
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I agree that the song has no actual drug references (beyond alcohol), but some of the lyrics are sufficiently ambiguous that, in the context of the times, they could be, and perhaps intentionally were, pressed into service as double entendres. Particularly the line "This is the worst trip I've ever been on", which is really made to stand out by having the backing vocals and instrumentation drop out almost completely for that one line. Don't tell me that at least some of the group members didn't have a chuckle over that (the same way the Byrds did when they sang about being "eight miles high" in an airplane heading for England).
#24
Old 07-21-2015, 03:11 PM
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Seems pretty straightforward to me...
Quote:
My grampa & I, we got in a fight.
Let's get out of here.
Captain's not on the ship; guess we can't leave yet so now I'm bummed.
First mate broke into the Captain's stuff, now he's been arrested. Still can't leave yet.
Let's check the rigging... what, the captain's not back yet? Shit.
The cook, he went crazy and stole most of my food and ate what he didn't steal. Christ. Worst. Cruise. EVER.
CAPTAIN!!!
#25
Old 07-21-2015, 03:23 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by cjepson View Post
I agree that the song has no actual drug references (beyond alcohol), but some of the lyrics are sufficiently ambiguous that, in the context of the times, they could be, and perhaps intentionally were, pressed into service as double entendres. Particularly the line "This is the worst trip I've ever been on", which is really made to stand out by having the backing vocals and instrumentation drop out almost completely for that one line. Don't tell me that at least some of the group members didn't have a chuckle over that (the same way the Byrds did when they sang about being "eight miles high" in an airplane heading for England).
We sang this song in 5th grade. Everyone knew it predated any psychedelic meaning. "Pressed into service" by whom? Nobody then. People on threads now, maybe. To chuckle at that would be witless. That would make Beavis and Butthead look subtle. The Byrds song was intentional.
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Old 07-21-2015, 03:25 PM
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I want to know what's up with the cook and why he tossed the grits. And he took the corn, too! Whatever for?
#27
Old 07-21-2015, 03:26 PM
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Originally Posted by scottburlin View Post
Whome ever came up with the lyrics being about LSD was on dope themselves.
That was parody. Or perhaps satire.
#28
Old 07-21-2015, 03:38 PM
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Originally Posted by drad dog View Post
We sang this song in 5th grade. Everyone knew it predated any psychedelic meaning. "Pressed into service" by whom? Nobody then. People on threads now, maybe. To chuckle at that would be witless. That would make Beavis and Butthead look subtle. The Byrds song was intentional.
Pressed into service by the Beach Boys & many of their fans. We were quite young then & got a chuckle out of finding a new layer of meaning in old lyrics.

A "witless" chuckle? Lord Save Us from solemn Fifth Graders....
#29
Old 07-21-2015, 03:46 PM
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Originally Posted by Bridget Burke View Post
Pressed into service by the Beach Boys & many of their fans. We were quite young then & got a chuckle out of finding a new layer of meaning in old lyrics.

A "witless" chuckle? Lord Save Us from solemn Fifth Graders....
Hnnhh Hnnhh She said "layer"

Thanks. for a second I thought I got faked out. This might be real, very real.
#30
Old 07-21-2015, 05:40 PM
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Originally Posted by BobLibDem View Post
I want to know what's up with the cook and why he tossed the grits. And he took the corn, too! Whatever for?
To make moonshine, maybe?
#31
Old 07-22-2015, 12:32 AM
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Originally Posted by scottburlin View Post
...Johnny Cash also recorded it as "I Wanna Go Home" before Al Jardine brought it to Mike Wilson in the late 1960's....
Brian Wilson. Excellent post though.
#32
Old 07-22-2015, 08:05 AM
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Originally Posted by scottburlin View Post
It is nothing more that a sea-diddy sang by sailors.
Sorry to pick a nit, but it's ditty.
#33
Old 07-22-2015, 08:09 AM
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Unless it's a chanty; that'd be monks.
#34
Old 07-22-2015, 11:05 AM
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The tune appeared in a collection of folk music in one of the books I used in a piano class in college. Drug song, indeed!
#35
Old 07-22-2015, 11:41 AM
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Originally Posted by FairyChatMom View Post
Sorry to pick a nit, but it's ditty.
Pretty sure he was referring to the rap version by Puff Diddy.
#36
Old 07-22-2015, 12:55 PM
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Originally Posted by Exapno Mapcase View Post
Pretty sure he was referring to the rap version by Puff Diddy.
Puff Diddy...
If you ask me, the "druggies" aren't the characters in the songs, but the weirdoes who think up those kookie names...

Last edited by dougie_monty; 07-22-2015 at 12:55 PM.
#37
Old 07-22-2015, 11:44 PM
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Originally Posted by drad dog View Post
We sang this song in 5th grade. Everyone knew it predated any psychedelic meaning. "Pressed into service" by whom?
By Brian Wilson, it would seem. He changed the lyric from the original "This is the worst trip since I've been born" to "This is the worst trip I've ever been on." It is believed by many that this change was likely intended as a subtle reference to acid. Just sayin'. I have no proof.
#38
Old 07-23-2015, 01:23 AM
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Originally Posted by cjepson View Post
By Brian Wilson, it would seem. He changed the lyric from the original "This is the worst trip since I've been born" to "This is the worst trip I've ever been on." It is believed by many that this change was likely intended as a subtle reference to acid. Just sayin'. I have no proof.
Believed by who? Both ways could reference acid anyway. Man you're stretching around like a yogi. Brian did acid. Any beach boys song with the word trip is a possible. Al Jardine brought this song to the group. But There's got to be more interesting references to cite. This would be the most mundane example if it is.
#39
Old 07-23-2015, 03:56 AM
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This reminds me of a passage from Tom Lehrer's song "Smut":
When correctly viewed
Ev'rything is lewd!
I could tell you things about Peter Pan, and the Wizard of Oz, there's a dirty old man!

In short, as in "Sloop John B," some people will see what they want to see.
#40
Old 07-23-2015, 04:48 AM
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Originally Posted by johnpost View Post
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).
They also make models of Devil's Tower from those mashed potatoes.

I'm not saying this song is about aliens.

But, aliens.
#41
Old 07-23-2015, 09:44 AM
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It's about drugs. All Sixties songs were about drugs.

Happy now?
#42
Old 07-23-2015, 10:11 AM
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I notice that the Wikipedia page on The John B Sails (the original song on which the Beach Boys version was ultimately based) makes no reference to a captain John Bethel or his ship, the solution scottburlin brought up recently. The song is traced no farther back than 1916, with no suggestion of when the Jphn B -- if it actually existed -- actually sailed. Some people suggest as far back as the 17th century, when a captain John Bethel evidently was around. That "everyone on Nassau" knows the origin, unfortunately, isn't sufficient pedigree. In the absence of documentary proof, it's like hearsay. For all we know, the song might date no further back than 1916, and be wholly fictional.


Here's another, weirder theory:

Quote:
Beach Boys meet George Romero?

September 4, 2011 11:04 AM Subscribe

Looking for some background I swear I read related the song "Sloop John B" to tales of ghost ships, zombies and other nautical/Caribbean folklore.


"Sloop John B" is my all-time favorite Beach Boys song. I know a little bit about the history of the ditty — from Carl Sandburg to Alan Lomax — but in the course of my casual research I swear I read something referring to the eponymous vessel as a ghost ship, not unlike The Flying Dutchman.

I also remember reading that the name of the ship is a bastardization of the word "zombie." In the Caribbean, a "jumbee" is a spirit or demon, and that word looks and sounds a lot like "John B." This would seem to support the ghost ship legend.

However, I cannot for the life of me find this info online, and I know I didn't come up with it on my own. So where the hell did I read this?




Related: The tune was adapted by Will Sheff as a comment on John Berrymore's suicide as described here.

posted by carmicha at 11:27 AM on September 4, 2011 [1 favorite]




I'm seeing a youtube (Google: "John B Sails Zombie") that's very close to your third paragraph. No attribution, though.

posted by Leon at 11:49 AM on September 4, 2011




comment. youtube comment. Edit window, diamonds and rubies, etc.

posted by Leon at 11:50 AM on September 4, 2011




It's not the post at the bottom of this page? Found googling for "Sloop John B" +jumbee

posted by bjrn at 12:52 PM on September 4, 2011




Leon, you nailed it. It's the description on this video that I remember reading. Now if only I could find some more information on that theory. Thanks!

posted by Brittanie at 1:15 PM on September 4, 2011




Berryman, not Barrymore.

posted by Ideefixe at 1:23 PM on September 4, 2011 [2 favorites]




Well, there does seem to have been a real John B -- John Bethel, a Bahamian sea captain, who may or may not be the John Bethel who was an original settler, but in any case led to a long line of Bethels in the islands. It seems more likely to me that the eponymous sloop was named for him rather than by him, but Sandburg does seem convinced that there was such a ship by that name parts of which were recovered in 1926 (at Governor's Harbour, which is on Eleuthera, not Nassau itself) -- but I can't find anything more substantive than that. (Which surprises me -- I would have thought if there were substance to this, it would be a minor tourist attraction.)

Even all that said, it would not be the first time that real history and folk belief have intersected in the form of a song.
http://ask.metafilter.com/195195/Bea...-George-Romero
#43
Old 07-23-2015, 11:00 AM
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Originally Posted by cjepson View Post
By Brian Wilson, it would seem. He changed the lyric from the original "This is the worst trip since I've been born" to "This is the worst trip I've ever been on." It is believed by many that this change was likely intended as a subtle reference to acid. Just sayin'. I have no proof.
I think it's extremely unlikely that this variant originated with Brian Wilson. "This is the worst trip I ever was on" is how the line appears in the book of folk songs I got when I was first learning guitar. Although the book was published in 1967 and so postdates the Beach Boys recording, the lyrics have enough small differences that they clearly are not copied from that version, and the book otherwise shows no rock influence--the version of "House of the Rising Sun," for example, has very little in common with the Animals' version.
#44
Old 07-23-2015, 11:48 AM
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Well, how good technically are the other lyrics? In other words, do they rhyme? Do they scan? Do they use obscure words? Could Burdon and The Animals have sung them intelligibly?
#45
Old 07-24-2015, 12:32 AM
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Like others have said I've always thought it was pretty straight forward, the opening scene in a coming of age tale. The "grandfather and me" line frames the story. It's sung from the point of view of a young'n from a sea faring family on his first real voyage. All this crazy sh#t happening. For him it's wild, scandalous and undesirable. For grandpa, it's business as usual.
#46
Old 07-24-2015, 01:41 AM
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Originally Posted by Oly View Post
Like others have said I've always thought it was pretty straight forward, the opening scene in a coming of age tale. The "grandfather and me" line frames the story. It's sung from the point of view of a young'n from a sea faring family on his first real voyage. All this crazy sh#t happening. For him it's wild, scandalous and undesirable. For grandpa, it's business as usual.
Occam's Razor, you know.
#47
Old 03-21-2016, 01:06 PM
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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_John_B._Sails

"The John B. Sails" is a Bahamian folk song from Nassau. A transcription by Richard Le Gallienne was published in 1916, and a version was included in Carl Sandburg's The American Songbag in 1927. Since the early 1950s there have been many recordings; variant titles include "I Want to Go Home", "Wreck of the John B", and "Sloop John B".

The song was transcribed by Richard Le Gallienne, with five verses and the chorus published in his article “Coral Islands and Mangrove-Trees” in the December 1916 issue of Harper’s Monthly Magazine (pp. 81–90). The first two verses and chorus were also published in Chapter IV of Gallienne’s 1917 novel Pieces of Eight.

As others have noted, it's probably pretty literal.
#48
Old 03-21-2016, 01:24 PM
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All I know is, my grandfather would've been bursting with pride had I gotten liquored up and gotten into a drunken brawl. I think my more cerebral nature was a disappointment to him.

Too bad he didn't live another 10 years or so to see me as a Marine.
#49
Old 03-21-2016, 01:50 PM
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Your grandfather may have read Outlines of History, particularly Page 1005 (of the 1921 edition, at least), where Wells quoted Friedrich Nietzsche on war.
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