Bully in the Alley
“Bully in the Alley” is a sea chantey.
- “Bully in the Alley” at The Digital Tradition on the Mudcat Café
- “Bully in the Alley” discussion on the Mudcat Café
- “Bully in the Alley” at MusicBrainz
“Bully in the Alley” is a halyard chantey, according to Hugill, though he thinks it may have been originally used for cotton-screwing. It has mutated a bit since Hugill noted it; the grand chorus in this version (which Hugill just gives as the first verse) would make it appropriate for a capstan or other tedious task (though cotton-screwing could be that).
I first got to know this song at the San Francisco chantey sing, but this set of verses is closest to the one recorded by Finest Kind. The “British ammunition and French champagne” verse just comes across as more fun than it has any reason to be.
I like the loose narrative that this version of the song gives, though as a halyard chantey, one would rarely get to hear all of it, and Hugill claims that most of the verses would have been improvised.
Shinbone Alley is a place that shows up in a lot of 19th-century African-American songs, and the Mudcat thread above has lots more information about that. It seems possible and even likely that one of those songs became a cotton-screwing chantey, and then went to sea as a halyard chantey. It’s all a bit murky, though, as the origins of so many traditional songs are.
But what does “bully in the alley” actually mean‽ Good question! You really should hear Tom Lewis’s impression of Stan Hugill’s explanation, but the short version: to feel good (to feel “bully”) in an alley is to be drunk, staggering down the alley, bouncing off the walls; a ship tacking into the wind follows a very similar zig-zag path. Now you know.