“Dixie Brown”


Arriving in (San Francisco), a sailor goes on a spree and ends up broke. He is taken in by [Dixie] Brown, who alleges he owes a score and uses that as a lever to force him back to sea. The sailor warns others to avoid the sea and this sort of trap


Boarding masters was a peculiar occupation which existed primarily in the late days of sail. At a time when casualties among sailors were high (due to injuries, bad diet, desertion, and incompetent skippers), a captain often needed to find new hands quickly. Hence the Boarding Master: He found sailors and gave them a place to stay in return for a fee, taken from the sailor's wages when he shipped out.

The idea wasn't inherently bad -- sailors, after all, did need some place to stay while on shore -- but the way it was implemented was pretty toxic. It was captains who hired the sailors from the boarding master, but the money was taken from the sailor's pay at a fixed rate. Thus there was every incentive for the boarding master to give the sailors the minimum amount of pay and shove them out the door as soon as they could be sobered up.

The practice was so common that rituals evolved around it, the most famous being that of "paying off the dead horse" -- the ceremony sailors performed when they had paid off the advance to the boarding master and finally were able to earn wages for themselves, usually after thirty days (for this, see "Poor Old Man (Poor Old Horse; The Dead Horse)").

There were relatively honest boarding masters, but some of the tricks they pulled were pretty dreadful. "Paddy West" tells of a boarding master who operated by teaching landlubbers to pretend to be sailors. Other boarding masters operated in complicity with captains to kidnap sailors shortly before they were paid off (see for this practice Richard Woodman, _A Brief History of Mutiny_,Carroll & Graf, 2005, p. 9); the idea was to avoid paying their wages. And the whole system worked because sailors in port were so good at wasting their pay anyway; see, e.g., "Gold Watch" [Laws K41] and the numerous references there to songs such as "Maggie May."

Dixie "Shanghai" Brown was a particularly notorious San Francisco boarding master, noted for not only supplying sailors for the whalers but going so far as to lure, rob, or trick sailors into his hands. Even among San Francisco boarding masters (who in this period were little better than slavers), he stood out as a particularly bad seed.

It should be noted that many versions of this song do not mention San Francisco or Brown; they simply tell of how a sailor arrived in port (often Liverpool), got drunk, spent all his money, and had to return to sea. The line "(he must) go to sea once more," however, seems highly characteristic. - RBW

There was an equally notorious Liverpool boarding master called "Rapper" Brown, whose name is often found in British versions of this song. - PJS

Cross references


  1. Laws D7, "Dixie Brown"
  2. Doerflinger, pp. 107-109, "Off to Sea Once More" (2 texts, 1 tune)
  3. Mackenzie 96, "Dixie Brown" (1 text)
  4. Hugill, pp. 581-585, "We'll Go To Sea No More," "Go To Sea No More," "Go To Sea Once More," "Off To Sea Once More" (4 texts, 3 tunes - the last tune given the name "The Flying Cloud" and listed without a text) [AbEd, pp. 402-406]
  5. Lomax-ABFS, pp. 494-496, "Jack Wrack" (1 text, 1 tune)
  6. Scott-BoA, pp. 140-141, "Off to Sea Once More" (1 text, 1 tune)
  7. DT 702, GOTOSEA
  8. Roud #644
  9. BI, LD07


Alternate titles: “Ben Breezer”; “Go to Sea Once More”
Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1923
Found in: Canada(Mar)