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From Mike: "This is an old Sea Shanty, Chris and I feel it will fit in well with the March theme and to demonstrate, we put together a little video. There are many different sets of lyrics for this song so we took liberty of the arrangement to a small extent." To play along with Mike & Chris in the 1st video in GCEA tuning, use the (Mike&Chris) songsheet.
To play along with the 2nd recording by Stan Ridgway in GCEA tuning, use the (Ridgway)(C) songsheet. Ladies may find it easier to sing using the (Ridgway)(G) songsheet.
This was one of the best and most popular halyard shanties. Hanging Johnny is a good example of a shanty that was ready made for stringing out, a trick used by the shantyman for lengthening a song to suit the job in hand. Anyone could be a candidate for Hanging Johnny's rope until he had enough verses to finish the job.
A maneuver called swigging was sometimes used to give a last strong tightening pull on a halyard. This essentially involved one or more sailors reaching high and hanging on the line with their full weight-hence, the association with hanging at the halyards where this chantey was used.
There is speculation that "Hanging Johnny" may refer to the eighteenth century hangman, Jack Ketch. In fact, "Jack Ketch" was a term used to refer to all hangmen, named after a Jack Ketch who was the executioner at Tyburn from 1663 - 1686. The shanty was also said to be sung by African-American soldiers in the Civil War who were recruited from the sea islands of the Carolina coast. They added additional verses dealing with their enlistment in the army.