Behind The Song: Beach Boys, “Sloop John B”

A traditional West Indies folk song

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Originally a traditional folk song, originating in the Bahamas, “Sloop John B” has a vast musical lineage spanning decades and many iterations, both in name and musicality. Beach Boys recorded their signature power-pop version on the landmark 1966 album, Pet Sounds, winking at the song’s roots and their own exploration of the island motif.

“Sloop John B” was initially called “The John B. Sails” and appeared in British author Richard Le Gallienne’s 1917 novel “Pieces of Eight.” In chapter four of book one, Le Gallienne wrote the chorus as: 

“So h’ist up the John B. sails,

      See how the mainsail set,

    Send for the captain — ­shore, let us go home

Let me go home, let me go home,

    I feel so break-up, I vant to go home.”

A complete transcription of the song’s five stanzas was also featured in the December 1916 copy of Harper’s Bazaar.

Popular American poet and biographer Carl Sandburg included the song on his 1927 folk compilation, The American Songbag. “John T. McCuteheon, cartoonist and kindly philosopher, and his wife Evelyn Shaw McCuteheon, mother and poet, learned to sing this on their Treasure Island in the West Indies,” he detailed in his notes on the song. “They tell of it, ‘Time and usage have given this song almost the dignity of a national anthem around Nassau. The weathered ribs of the historic craft lie imbedded in the sand at Governor’s Harbor, whence an expedition, especially sent up for the purpose in 1920, extracted a knee of horseflesh and a ring-bolt. These relics arc now preserved and built into the Watch Tower, designed by Mr. Howard Shaw and built on our southern coast a couple of points east by north of the star Canopus.’”

In 1958, The Kingston Trio – often noted at the forefront of the ‘60s folk revival – recorded a version called “(The Wreck of the) John B” for their self-titled debut album. The ensuing years would result in numerous acts recording their own interpretations, including Johnny Cash (1969), Lonnie Donegan (1960) and Jimmie Rodgers (1960).

Cut to 1965. It was the height of summer, and the Beach Boys were in the middle of a recording session at Western Studio 3 in Hollywood’s United Western Records. As band member Al Jardine remembered in the album’s liner notes, he “had been studying the song… at home, and from my early experiences as a fan of the Kingston Trio, I thought that it would be a great song for us to do.”

Brian Wilson was sitting at the piano when Jardine began setting down the chord pattern. “I said, ‘Remember this song?’ I played it. He said, ‘I’m not a big fan of the Kingston Trio.’ He wasn’t into folk music. But I didn’t give up on the idea,” he note. Jardine played the chords again, but this time, he gave the tune a bit of a classic Beach Boys swing.

“I figured if I gave it to him in the right light, he might end up believing in it. So, I modified the chord changes so it would be a little more interesting,” he added. Jardine proceeded to reconfigure with some minor chord tweaks and extended the vocal line a bit. 

Later that evening, Wilson took a pass on the song and further updated the folk song with a more commercial tone. “The idea stage to the completed track took less than 24 hours. He then lined as up one at a time to try out for the lead vocal. I had naturally assumed I would sing the lead, since I had brought in the arrangement,” said Jardine. 

The vocals were recorded months later. “It was like interviewing for a job. Pretty funny. He didn’t like any of us. My vocal had a much more mellow approach because I was bringing it from the folk idiom. For the radio, we needed a more rock approach. Brian and Mike ended up singing it.”

“Sloop John B” served as the lead single to Pet Sounds and would peak at No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100 (chart dated May 7, 1966).

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