Paddy Lay Back
“Paddy Lay Back” is a sea chantey.
- The Liverpool Song
- Mainsail Haul
- Paddy Get Back
- Valparaiso Round the Horn
“Paddy Lay Back” is a capstan chantey, as made evident by its grand chorus: “Take a turn around the capstan, heave a pawl!” As with many capstan chanteys, it tells a tale, and the grand chorus helps fill out the time as well. Hugill gives several versions, including as a forebitter, Colcord gives it as “Paddy Get Back,” which Hugill also notes as a common variation. Hugill also cites Smith, but I do not see any reference in the (index-less) edition I have.
Raising an anchor can take hours. Capstan and windlass chanteys are accordingly time-filling; I like the full story that “Paddy Lay Back” can tell, but singing it at a chantey sing seems a bit excessive. The chance to put the whole thing on an album was a chance to sing it without anyone else’s impatient looks; how could I resist? Also, this song is proof that “pants” and any words that rhyme with it are inherently funny. At least to me.
This song does raise a couple of questions, at least to an inquisitive land-lubber. Like, “What’s a pawl?” To back up a bit—the capstan itself is a vertical barrel, and the sailors walk around it in a circle, pushing (heaving) at the capstan bars inserted in it. A pawl is a (roughly) teardrop-shaped piece of metal, in this case, attached to the capstan itself. Around the base of the capstan is a saw-toothed metal band, and the pawl ratchets over each tooth, preventing the capstan from spinning backward out of control should anything go wrong. So, to “heave a pawl” is to move one notch forward around the capstan.
We also hear that the the foreign sailors “answer to the name of ‘month’s advance.’” On merchant ships, a sailor was typically paid one month’s pay in advance; ostensibly to outfit himself with any kit he lacked, though more often it was spent… let us say, irresponsibly. These sailors clearly had a very nautical sense of priorities.
On occasion, I have heard singers attempt to sing more or less this version of the song, but with more family-friendly words in missed rhymes. This is usually undone to good comic effect (sometimes per the singer’s intent) when the chorus roars back the real rhyme, e.g., “a lousy no good son-of-a-gun—bitch! bitch!”
This version may not be family-friendly, depending on how prepared your family is to have frank conversations about fiscal responsibility, substance abuse, respect for other cultures, and sex workers.
- “Paddy Lay Back,” recording by Chris Maden. MusicBrainz.
- Chris Maden. “Laying back,” Kickstarter update. 12 July 2018.
- Glenn Grasso, ed. Songs of the Sailor, p. 18–19. Mystic, Conn.: Mystic Seaport, 1998.
- Stan Hugill. Shanties from the Seven Seas, pp. 240–244. New U.S. Edition. Mystic, Conn.: Mystic Seaport, 1994.
- Joanna C. Colcord. Songs of American Sailormen, pp. 121–122. Enlarged and Revised Edition. New York: Bramhall House, 1938.