I’m not very good at choosing favorites. I couldn’t tell you what my favorite film is, who my favorite actor is, or even what my favorite color or food is. It’s just not in my nature to elevate one above the rest. Whether I’m indecisive or simply dishonest, one thing is for sure: I’d have a terrible time packing for an indefinite, stranded stay on a deserted island.
With one exception: I’m fairly certain that my favorite song of all time is “Sloop John B.” by the Beach Boys. I’m not sure when or where I decided this; indeed, it’s clear from my vacillating tone that I’m not even sure that I actually DID decide it. Favorites always seemed pretty fluid to me. If you’d asked me at age eight my favorite song, I might have told you it was the theme to Ghostbusters by Ray Parker, Jr. Around 13 or 14 I was pretty sure it was Led Zeppelin’s other-worldly anthem “Kashmir.” There was even a time, ten or so years ago, when “In A Little While” by U2 hit the top of the Adam Underhill charts. That song kind of annoys me now.
But “Sloop John B.,” now there’s a tune I can get behind. It’s got a little bit of many things that I like: A muddled history, a Caribbean setting, a boat, a voyage, grits, fighting drunks, etc. What’s not to love? I can see why the Beach Boys covered it in 1966 for their landmark Pet Sounds LP, and why it went on to become one of their biggest hits. I’m not sure the first time I heard it, but it’s always sort of been there for me and I’ve never tired of it. Here is video of the band performing the song live in 1980, pre-Uncle Jesse on drums.
Despite the ubiquity of the Beach Boys’ version, the song has had many incarnations since it was first included, under the title “The John B. Sails,” in a book of songs by poet Richard Le Gallienne in 1917. No one is certain whether he wrote it or simply heard it and put it on paper, but by 1927 Carl Sandburg had included it in one of his folksong collections under the same title. In the ensuing years, the song was recorded by such artists as Alan Lomax (“Histe Up The John B Sail”), Johnny Cash (“I Want to Go Home”), Lonnie Donegan (“I Wanna Go Home [Wreck Of the ‘John B’]), and the Kingston Trio (“Wreck of the John B.”).
What’s interesting to me is how many white guys have covered the song, considering the fact that it was described back in 1917 as “one of the quaint Nassau ditties,” and clearly penned in a West Indian style of broken English. Whether this song was originally truly sung by black Nassau fishermen, or was just an example of white songsmith minstrelsy of its era, is unknown. Nevertheless, it’s a great tune to add to your travel playlist, because it reminds you that not every trip goes as planned. Sometimes you just wanna hoist up the sails and go home.
Previous Travelin’ Playlist Essentials: