Saturday, October 5, 2013

Roll, Alabama, Roll

To my southern friends, the topic of this blog post is not about your favorite football team.
No, I am not trying to mislead you.
I just learned something new - that "Roll, Alabama" has a historical aspect to it, not just football.

[Disclaimer: Readers, I am a Midwesterner so if this story is a known part of Southern history sorry for the repeat. I've just learned about this so it is new for me.]


I was writing away earlier today listening to NPR (National Public Radio, for my international readers). A program came on that sounded like it was broadcast from a pub of some sort. The singing was very enthusiastic. I found myself singing along. (NOT that I frequent pubs, the songs were highly repetitive and therefore easy to join in on.)

"Roll, Alabama, Roll" caught my attention.

At first, I associated it with football thinking "football + pub = drinking song."
Made sense to me.

However, the more I listened the more I realized the lyrics did not sound football related.
The more I listened, I found it was not. 
The more I listened, I found I liked it.

Yay! A new song!

Turns out "Roll, Alabama, Roll" is a shanty (short definition: a song sung by sailors).
[To me it is more so a ballad (a storytelling song) than a shanty (more associated with work related songs).]

It has origins with the Civil War.
It was about the battle pictured here:

A little background:

The CSS Alabama was purchased by the Confederate states as a scourge of the enemy's  commerce (the enemy was the Union forces of the United States), rather than for battle - though she did have a battery of guns for use "only if/as necessary." She was top of the line for that time period. The CSS Alabama carried a crew of 120 men and 24 officers.

For 22 months the CSS Alabama scoured the eastern seaboard for Union ships. She boarded and captured many vessels and sank one. Until the engagement with the ship Kearsarge she lost not one man to accident or disease aboard the ship.

In the end the CSS Alabama sank.

"Roll, Alabama, Roll" tells the story of this once fierce, seaworthy ship.

The song is in call-and-response form. A leader sings the verses while the group sings the response, "Roll, Alabama, Roll."
Listen for the phrase "Roll, Alabama, Roll" it is repetitive and easily learned.
Enjoy this recording.  Good chance you might find yourself singing along! :)

There are many variants (versions) of this song with many more verses than I am including here. However, these are closest to the recording given above.

Roll Alabama Roll

When the Alabama's keel was laid
  Roll, Alabama, Roll
It was laid in the yards of Jonathan Laird
  O roll, Alabama, roll

It was laid in the yards of Jonathan Laird
It was laid in the town of Birkenhead

Down Mersey way she sailed then
Liverpool fitted her with guns and men

Down mersey way she sailed forth
To destroy the commerce of the North

To Cherbourg harbor she sailed one day
To collect her share of the prize money

And many a sailor saw his doom
When the Yankee Kearsage hove into view

A shot from the forward pivot that day
Blew the Alabama's steering gear away

Off the three mile limit in sixty-four
She sank to the bottom of the ocean floor


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