This was originally going to be a recording of the well-known shanty “Blood red roses” (Go down, you blood-red roses!). Then I did some research – or rather, I found out about the research other people had been doing, notably the estimable Gibb Schreffler (“Gibb Sahib” on Mudcat). It seems that “Blood red roses” first appeared in the 1956 film Moby Dick, sung by a shantyman played by A. L. Lloyd (no less). There are a few older sources – not many; it’s an obscure song in any form – but none of them include “blood red roses” or the phrase “go down”. The endless speculation about the meaning and relevance of those blood-red roses – a poetic image for the blood fountaining from a stricken whale? a reference to the red coats of the eighteenth-century British Army? an oblique reference to the “bonny bunch of roses” of Napoleonic fame? – seems to have been founded on nothing more meaningful or traditional than a rewrite by Bert Lloyd.
As for “Come down you bunch of roses”, it seems to have been based on a West Indian children’s game (a singing game with the refrain “Come down with a bunch of roses” was recorded in 1962). Shanty writers worked with whatever was to hand – the not at all family-friendly “Little Sally Racket” also seems to have started life in the playground. Asking what the roses meant is a bit like asking for the meaning of the socks in “While shepherds washed their socks by night” – there was this song, and it got twisted to use as a shanty, and, er, that’s it. Having said that, perhaps the appeal of the phrase in this context has to do with the contrast between the flower imagery and the masculine job of hauling on a rope; a shantyman singing “Oh you pinks and posies!” is a bit like a sergeant major saying “Come on, you great fairies, put your backs into it!” (Perhaps we should sing it as “pinks and pansies”. Or perhaps not.)
As well as making the refrain more mysterious and exciting, Bert Lloyd seems to have detached it from its original verses, which – backing up the ‘singing game’ theory – were very largely about girls and food, and very little about whales and bad weather. In this respect I chickened out; my refrain has different words and a different tune from the standard revival version of “Blood red roses” (not bad for a single line of six words), but my verses are pretty much what you’d expect. Many thanks to Gibb Schreffler for the work he put into researching and recording this song.
As well as harmony vocals there’s a bit of musique concrète on here by way of percussion; I stamped on a wood floor, stuck my hand in a jug of water and rattled oven shelves, among other things. It keeps me off the streets.