Round-the-table songs

You’re in a session, happily watching other people’s fingers and singing along with choruses. Someone starts a song, and to your horror you realise people around the table are taking turns to make up the verses! You don’t know the song, and your turn is approaching with the speed and inevitability of a freight train. PANIC!

Don’t panic. You have two simple options: sing a verse or don’t sing a verse.

The song-leader will be conducting a complex semaphore to work out who wants a turn and who doesn’t. If you don’t want to sing a verse, signal this clearly. It’s easily done by shaking your head, waving your hands in a negatory sort of way, pointing at the next person along, etc. The degree of emphasis you invest in this communication is entirely up to you.

But hold on a second. Do you really want to deny yourself this opportunity to have a bit of fun? What if you go home thinking ‘It wouldn’t have been so hard – I wish I’d given it a go?’ Seriously, what’s the worst that can happen? I can tell you, because I’ve done it many times and so has every other experienced round-the-table singer: you might trip over your words, not manage to sing quite what you meant to sing, and bugger up the rhythm a little. That is absolutely the worst that can happen. Truly. I promise no sessioner has ever been crushed by a collapsing pub roof, horrifyingly consumed by marrow-sucking sea-cucumbers, or forcibly evicted from civilisation as we know it, because they stumbled in a round-the-table song.

So you decide to have a crack. You respond to the song-leader’s cocked eyebrow with an affirmatory nod and thumbs-up. Can we break this down a bit, to make the technical bit (i.e. actually singing some words) easier? Yes, yes we can. It’s all about recognising the pattern of the song and fitting your new words into it. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

The two round-the-table songs we regularly sing at the Saturday Session in Brisbane are both sea-shanties: Sammy’s Gone Away, and A Drop of Nelson’s Blood. They swing along but they’re not fast, and they’re both fairly easy to pick up in terms of tune, rhythm and concept. Considerate fellow-sessioners will try to make sure several people who are familiar with the song have their turns before you’re up, so you get the hang of it.

Sammy starts like this: ‘Oh I wish I were the cabin-boy aboard a man o’ war (OY!)/ Sammy’s gone away, aboard a man o’ war’. The traditional version then continues up the ship’s hierarchy: ‘Oh I wish I were the second mate/ first mate/ captain/ admiral’. It ends on ‘shanty-man’, implying that the singer is the most important person aboard. The two lines that start ‘I wish I were’ and ‘Sammy’s gone away’ are sung and then repeated, then it’s time for the chorus.

In the round-the-table version (which I learnt from the crew of Melbourne tall ship Enterprize – thanks guys!), you get to make up what you ‘wish you were’. You only have to invent a third of a line: ‘I wish I were’ and ‘aboard a man o’ war’ are provided for you. If you follow the pattern exactly, you need four syllables to replace ‘a cabin-boy’. If you use ‘a’, you only need three new syllables. The possibilities are endless: ‘a piece of pie’, ‘a scarlet dress’, ‘an apricot’, ‘a dancing dog’, etc. It doesn’t have to be funny or make sense, though most people try to manage one or the other.

It’s fine to play around with the available syllables. Mal usually goes for ‘the figurehead’, Don’s favourite is ‘a parrot’, while Maree leans toward ‘not’ (i.e. ‘I wish that I were NOT [rest/beat] aboard a man o’ war’). Keith has come out with ‘I wish I sold insurance’ while Micky’s clever reversal is ‘I wish I were a man o’ peace aboard a man o’ war’. If you’re stuck, go with something simple like ‘the cook’. (By the way, it doesn’t matter if you sing ‘was’ or ‘were’ – ‘were’ is more grammatically correct and doesn’t have the sibilant ‘s’ to complicate the sound, but most song-leaders sing whatever comes naturally to them, and everyone else copies).

A Drop of Nelson’s Blood refers to a sailor’s ration of grog (rum and water). This is based on a legend that after Nelson fell at the battle of Trafalgar, his body was sealed in a rum-cask to preserve it for the voyage home. The shanty’s structure is one line repeated three times (‘Oh a drop of Nelson’s blood wouldn’t do us any harm, a drop of Nelson’s blood wouldn’t do us any harm, a drop of Nelson’s blood wouldn’t do us any harm’) then the line (‘And we’ll all hang on behind’), then the chorus.

Traditionally the shanty lists a number of things a sailor might yearn for, including ‘a plate of Irish stew’, ‘a roll in the clover’, ‘a night’s watch ashore’, ‘a round on the house’ and (disturbingly) ‘a nice fat cook’. Feel free to sing any of these, or make up your own. You have a few more syllables to play with than in Sammy, so some people enjoy using this song for a topical joke or a bit of political commentary (a recent singer expressed a wish for ‘a better US president’).

Coming up with a few syllables to slip into a song isn’t the hard bit, though, is it? What terrifies most people is the idea of being in the spotlight for a moment, all eyes on you and everyone listening to your voice. I know it’s scary – but isn’t it also just a little bit glorious? Do it once and the next time will be easy. And it’s a surprisingly short step from tossing your two cents into a round-the-table song, and leading a whole song yourself, if that’s what you’d like to do (as always, no pressure).

A few quick tips for song-leaders. It may be better not to embark on a round-the-table song if there’s a cast of thousands. Because they’re repetitive, these shanties can get boring by about the tenth verse, and Nelson’s Blood in particular is quite wearing on people’s voices. With a very small group of singers, you can always go round twice. As song-leader, I like to begin and end a round-the-table song, to provide a sense of closure: I’ll end Sammy with the traditional ‘I wish I were the shanty-man’ and Nelson’s Blood with a reprise of the first verse (‘A drop of Nelson’s blood’). Because the songs are so repetitive, our session doesn’t repeat the last chorus, but we do slow down towards the end and hold the last note.

What about you – what other songs do you sing ‘round-the-table’?



One thought on “Round-the-table songs

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  1. Another good post. Thanks. If you struggle to come up with words for made up verses, just sing stuff like “I don’t know the words to sign right now”, etc. Literally whatever comes into your mind. The nerves make you over think it. Once you get used to making up words on the fly, you’ll be surprised at how easier it gets. You’ll start to get in the flow of the moment and the words will fit the made up songs better. Making a start at making up stuff is the first step.


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