Leave Her Johnny: what the song means

Another ShantyTok favourite popularised by Nathan Evans… Leave Her Johnny is a shanty with a unique purpose – traditionally it would only be sung on one occasion (we’ll explain that shortly). It sometimes goes by the alternate names Time for Us to Leave Her and Leave Her Bullies.

There are loads of alternate verses available. Why? That’ll make perfect sense shortly. The general theme of the song is sailors fed up with ship life and wanting to head back to land. We’ll explain our favourite verses, the one occasion this song was sung, and share some versions we really enjoy. If you fancy singing it, take a peek at our instrumental karaoke version of Leave Her Johnny.

History of Leave Her Johnny

This song is old. Exactly how old is difficult to pinpoint. The earliest written record is 1917. However, in Shanties from the Seven Seas, Stan Hugill says, “It probably came to life about the time of the Irish potato famine, in the (18) forties, and was originally sung in the Western Ocean Packets in this fashion:”. He goes on to suggest that the song has its origins in the shanty Across the Rockies.

It’s worth pointing out there is a meaning sometimes given to the song that we think is likely false. Some people claim that the ‘her’ is actually a woman onshore. We think this is unlikely and ‘her’ being the ship seems much more consistent with the lyrics of the song.

Assuming that ‘her’ is indeed the ship, let’s talk about the narrative of the song… It’s a tired and weary crew asking the captain to abandon the trip because of a range of problems. The captain is known as the generic ‘Johnny’ – much in the same way we use Joe Bloggs today. Now, this brings us to the one occasion this song may be sung at.

The only time this song was traditionally sung was as the ship was very close to completing her voyage – almost in the docks. It was used by the crew to share all their complaints about the ship, crewmates, officers, and rations. At this point, they’re so close to home that it doesn’t matter if they annoyed anyone. There will be no repercussions for their actions.

Some very explicit verses were sung. They would often be personalised based on the traits of the crew. It’s also worth mentioning that this song wasn’t sung on naval ships because they were expected to respect the chain of command at all times. However, merchants, whalers, and pirate ships would all make use of this tune to give the higher-ups some cheek. As a rule, this would be accepted with good humour; after all, they’ve just spent several months working the crew hard.

A couple of insulting and commonly used verses are featured below:

The Mate was a bucko an’ the Old Man a Turk

The Bosun was a beggar with the middle name o’ work

The cook’s a drunk, he likes to booze

Between him and the mate, there’s little to choose

Leave Her Johnny lyrics

Oh, the times were hard and the wages are low

Leave her, Johnny, leave her

I think it’s time for us to go

And it’s time for us to leave her

Oh, I thought I heard the old man say

Leave her, Johnny, leave her

Tomorrow you will get your pay

And it’s time for us to leave her


Leave her, Johnny, leave her

Oh, leave her, Johnny, leave her

For the voyage is done and the winds don’t blow

And it’s time for us to leave her

It’s rotten beef and weevily bread

Oh, leave her, Johnny, leave her

It’s pump or drown the old man said

And it’s time for us to leave her

The wind was foul and the sea ran high

Oh, leave her, Johnny, leave her

She shipped it green and none went by

And it’s time for us to leave her


I hate to sail on this rotten tub

Oh, leave her, Johnny, leave her

No grog allowed and rotten grub

And it’s time for us to leave her

The ship won’t steer, or stay, or wear

Oh, leave her, Johnny, leave her

And so us shellbacks learnt to swear

And it’s time for us to leave her


The old man shouts, the pumps stand by

Oh, leave her, Johnny, leave her

Oh, we can never suck her dry

And it’s time for us to leave her

We swear by rote for want of more

Oh, leave her, Johnny, leave her

But now we’re through so we’ll go onshore

And it’s time for us to leave her


What the lyrics mean

“Oh, I thought I heard the old man say”

The ‘old man’ was a slang term for the captain of the ship. 

“It’s pump or drown the old man said”

Every ship had pumps to remove any water that got inside. There are several sea shanties that were used specifically for keeping time when pumping.

“She shipped it green and none went by”

There are two likely interpretations of this line. The first is talking about them getting hit by a big wave. When the wave is higher than the ship it appears green in colour – due to the magic of physics and light getting refracted through the water. ‘None went by’ means that they were hit by every single wave.

The other possibility is their talking about the fresh supplies.  The fruit and veg was ‘shipped green’ – aka unripe, so it would last for longer. ‘None went by’ is saying that they ate it all before any could go bad. This is being used as another reason to head home.

When taken in the context of the entire verse, we think the first interpretation is more likely. But it’s quite possible the other interpretation was also intended as witty wordplay.

“The ship won’t steer, or stay, or wear”

This is saying that the ship is not fit for purpose. It can’t steer in a direction. It can’t stay the course – continue in one direction. And it can’t wear. ‘Wear’ means to change the direction the ship is moving in sideways. In short, the ship is broken.

“And so us shellbacks learnt to swear”

‘Shellback’ is slang for an experienced sailor. Originally it was used to refer specifically to those that had crossed the equator. ‘Learnt to swear’ is saying the ship is in such bad condition that even the experienced sailors think it’s bad. The conditions are so bad that they’re forced to swear about it.

“Oh, we can never suck her dry”

This is in reference to pumping the ship. It’s taken on so much water that they’ll never be able to get it all out. Pumping was a hard task. It would be even worse when it’s all that needs to be done before your voyage is complete.

“We swear by rote for want of more”

‘By rote’ means they’re doing it by habit – it’s a practised thing. Remember that this song was sung on almost every ship at the time. The line is saying they’re singing all these complaints as a regular thing. They’re acknowledging this is a tradition and many of the complaints are repeated on every ship.

Best versions of Leave Her Johnny

Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag

An old favourite of anyone who played Assassin’s Creed. It’s a well-produced and powerful take on the classic tune. Sung by Sean Dagher, Nils Brown and Michiel Schrey we can’t recommend this version enough.

Johnny Collins

This version is by an English folk singer. It’s simple and feels authentic. Well worth a listen.


Bad video quality, bad audio quality… but EXCELLENT singing. This is a heartfelt version sung by a group of 7. A few drinks, good mates, and sea shanties – it looks like a good time!

Final thoughts

You’ve learned this song was traditionally sung as the last song before disembarking a vessel. We’ve explained the meaning of all the tricky lyrics. We ended by sharing some fantastic versions  – think we missed a great one? Let us know in the comments.

If you’d like to try singing it, why not give our acoustic karaoke version a go?

10 thoughts on “Leave Her Johnny: what the song means”

  1. Discovered this article while in hospital. Made a “Grey time” a bit less Grey. Enjoyed singing along with all three versions. Rhank you.

    1. Thanks so much for getting in touch! I’m really glad we could make it a slightly better time for you. Hope you’re back to 100% now!

    1. I hadn’t heard the d’Artagnan version before; it’s fab! Thanks for sharing. And agreed,the Longest John’s are always a good listen.

  2. I just watched The Alehouse Sessions on BBC4 last night and Bjarte Eike did a stunning version, ending with the group singing in a market and going their separate ways, much as a long haul crew might have done 150 years ago.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *