08 September 2010

A Long Lost Song of the Sea?

Sailors don’t care,
Sailors don’t care
Whether she’s dark
Or whether she’s fair!
As long as her lily-white bottom is bare
Sailors don’t care!
I caught myself singing this ditty while going through some paperwork last night.

Better at my desk than in church.

Ribald? You bet! But my real interest lies in the song's connection to American author Edwin Lanham's debut novel Sailors Don't Care (1929), first published in Paris by Contact Editions. The author and his publisher, Robert McAlmon, had contradictory stories as to the origins of the title – each credited the other – though it's probable that they drew from our own John Glassco. Then a teenager, the Montreal poet had learned the song aboard the Canadian Traveller, the ship that in 1928 carried him across the Atlantic to his Montparnassean adventures. Fourteen years later, Glassco wrote McAlmon, reminding him that the title "was taken from Captain Miller's (no relation to Henry) song in the second chapter of those abortive memoirs of mine ... both you and Ed read it, I know."

The lyrics to Captain Miller's song are found in John Glassco's papers at Library and Archives Canada... and, it seems, nowhere else.

Andrew Draskóy, of Shanties & Sea Songs, tells me that "'sailors don’t care' was a common saying around that time in its sense of sailors aren't picky." I note that the phrase also gave title to two American films, the first released the year before Lanham’s book was published. However, what I find particularly interesting is its appearance in the Victor Schertzinger/Johnny Mercer song "The Fleet's In", from the 1942 film of the same name. Its use is... well... fleeting. You'll hear the words just after the two minute mark:
She may be dark or fair,
But sailors don't care...

I wonder, was Johnny Mercer also familiar with Captain Miller's song?

Trivia: Really, isn't everything about this post trivial? That said, it's worth noting that Sailors Don't Care was published twice. The less ribald 1930 Jonathan Cape edition, pictured above, will set you back US$1000. The truly wealthy might consider the most desirable copy of the dirtier first edition. Inscribed by Lanham to McAlmon's partner in publishing William Carlos Williams, it goes for a mere US$2250.

Reliant upon his siblings, McAlmon died in near-poverty in 1956. At the time, Lanham was living a hand to mouth existence as a writer of mystery novels.


  1. "Ribald you bet"? Or "Ribald you betcha"? I saw some old friends of D. Bookcase today -- N. Goodman and C. Tenney -- and we got to talking about serial killers, which led to me bragging on the works of J. Marlowe. Anyhow, they send their regards.

  2. I think it was the former.

    Please do give N. and C. my best.

    J. Marlowe sends his regards, too.