“John Kanaka” is a sea chantey.
- “John Kanaka” at The Digital Tradition on the Mudcat Café
- “John Kanaka” discussion on the Mudcat Café
- “John Kanaka” at MusicBrainz
“John Kanaka” is a halyard chantey with an interesting debate; as I wrote to my backers after recording this:
The chantey “John Kanaka” is an interesting point of chantey nerdery. Many folk music fans, and many recording artists, sing the chorus as “John Kanaka-naka, too-rye-ay.” The “too-rye-ay” sounds like a good ol’ Irish folk song bit o’ nonsense.
However, Stan Hugill was notorious for interrupting performances to lecture the audience that “there’s no R in the Samoan language; it’s ‘too-LIE-ay!’” In Shanties from the Seven Seas, the Bible of sea chanteys, he writes, “The chorus is of Polynesian origin and I should say the words ‘tulai ē’ were Samoan.” Now, Stan was a polymath and polyglot, and definitely knew quite a bit about Polynesian languages (not to mention chanteys). That said, he was not a formal, rigorous scholar, and he provides no evidence nor citation for his assertion about the chorus here. He has proven to be wrong about a few other speculations, so everything in his book (which is, to be clear, invaluable) should be taken with a grain of salt.
James Revell Carr, in Hawaiian Music in Motion, reports that “tulai ē” is Hawaiʻian for “stand your ground,” and it’s reasonable in a hauling chantey to exhort the sailors to stand their ground.
Stan may be right about the origin and “correct” version of the words… but what did sailors actually sing during the Age of Sail? How many of them were more conversant with the rules of Polynesian phonetics than with Irish folk songs?
The kicker for me is that Gibb Schreffler, a professor of musicology at Pomona College, and an expert on chanteys himself (particularly one who has written some scholarly dissections of Hugill’s assertions), points out that, at least according to Wikipedia, the Samoan phonetic rules change the L after a U to an “alveolar tap” (ɾ for you phonetics nerds), a sound like the Ts in North American “better” or the R in the Spanish “pero.”
So… I sang it with the tap. Or tried to. I think you can hear an L or an R, whichever you choose, in it.
Meanwhile, Colcord has a fascinating note attached to “John Cherokee”: “Eckstorm and Smyth give a fragment of this song, with the refrain, ‘Jan Kanaganaga, too-li-aye.’” Clearly “John Kanaka,” but with the “John Cherokee” verses? The folk process can have some weird results.
I originally heard this at the San Francisco chantey sing, though I also heard some hilariously obscene verses from Arrr!!! (Those verses are not on this recording.) I couldn’t tell you, at this point, where I got my verses from; they are the ones, I guess, that were the stickiest when they hit my brain.
- “John Kanaka,” recording by Chris Maden. MusicBrainz.
- Chris Maden. “Stand your ground!” Kickstarter update. 9 August 2018.
- Stan Hugill. Shanties from the Seven Seas, pp. 211–212. New U.S. Edition. Mystic, Conn.: Mystic Seaport, 1994.
- Joanna C. Colcord. Songs of American Sailormen, p. 102. Enlarged and Revised Edition. New York: Bramhall House, 1938.