“Poor Old Man (Poor Old Horse; The Dead Horse)”


Shanty. Characteristic line: "For they say so and they know so... Oh, poor old (horse/man)." The sailor meets an old man with an old horse; they exchange comments about the horse's (and humanity's) fate. Alternate chorus: "And I say so/And we hope so"


When a boarding master supplied a sailor to a ship, he received an advance from the sailor's pay (for background on this, see the notes to "Dixie Brown" [Laws D7]). Thus the sailor had to work for some weeks or months before he began to earn money for himself. This was known as "working off the dead horse." Often sailors celebrated in some way when the dead horse was finally disposed of, and this song celebrates the process. - RBW

Thirty days out, sailors would sometimes make a horse-figure from rags and tar, hoist it to the yardarm, cut it loose and let it drift away on the sea, a ritual known as "burying the dead horse." A good captain would break out a ration of rum at this time. A sailor of my acquaintance reported that 100 days out, on a U.S. Navy carrier, the men would be given a ration of two cans of beer, and this was still known as the "dead horse." - PJS

Bone says of this that it is "the only chanty I know composed definitely for entertainment." - RBW

For another version see Robert Bell, editor, [The Project Gutenberg EBook (1996) of] Ancient Poems, Ballads and Songs of the Peasantry of England (1857), "'The Mummers' Song' or 'The Poor Old Horse' as sung by the Mummers in the Neighbourhood of Richmond, Yorkshire, at the merrie time of Christmas" ("You gentlemen and sportsmen"). - BS

Cross references


  • Capt. Leighton Robinson, "The Dead Horse" (AFS, 1951; on LC26)
  • Leighton Robinson w. Alex Barr, Arthur Brodeur & Leighton McKenzie, "Poor Old Man" (AFS 4229 B, 1939; in AMMEM/Cowell)


  1. Doerflinger, p. 14, "Poor Old Man" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. Colcord, pp. 63-64, "Poor Old Man" (1 text, 1 tune)
  3. Harlow, pp. 68-69, 84, "Poor Old Man," "The Dead Horse," "Poor Old Joe" (3 texts, 2 tunes)
  4. Hugill, pp. 554-555, "The Dead Horse" (1 text, 1 tune) [AbEd, pp. 389-392]
  5. Sharp-EFC, XLVII, p. 52, "The Dead Horse" (1 text, 1 tune)
  6. Linscott, pp. 134-135, "The Dead Horse" (1 short text, 1 tune)
  7. Sandburg, p. 406, "The Dead Horse" (1 text, 1 tune)
  8. Smith/Hatt, p. 25, "Say Old Man" (1 text)
  9. Bone, p. 50, "The 'Dead Horse' Chanty" (1 short text, 1 tune)
  10. Shay-SeaSongs, p. 16, "The Dead Horse" (1 text)
  11. MHenry-Appalachians, p. 237, (no title) (1 fragment, probably this)
  13. ADDITIONAL: Captain John Robinson, "Songs of the Chantey Man," a series published July-August 1917 in the periodical _The Bellman_ (Minneapolis, MN, 1906-1919). A fragment titled "Poor Old Joe" is in Part 2, 7/21/1917.
  14. Roud #513
  15. BI, Doe014


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1857 (Bell)
Keywords: shanty horse
Found in: US(MA,NE) Canada(Mar)