Greenland Wale Fisheries

TITLE: Greenland Whale Fisheries
AUTHOR: unknown
CATEGORY: Traditional, Public Domain
KEYWORDS: ship, whale, whaler, death
EARLIEST PRINTED OR RECORDED REFERENCE: From the Traditional Ballad Index—1820 (The Mavis, according to Greig); before 1825 (broadside, Bodleian 2806 c.17(160))

jardine-greenland-whale-pl4Greenland Whale Fishery “is the oldest—and many think the best—of surviving songs of the whaling trade. It had already appeared on a broadside around 1725, very shortly after the South Sea Company decided to resuscitate the then moribund whaling industry, and sent a dozen fine large ships around Spitsbergen and the Greenland Sea. The song went on being sung with small changes all the time to bring it up to date.

“Our present version mentions the year 1834, the ship Lion, its captain Randolph. Other versions give other years, and name other ships and skippers (there was a whaler the Lion, out of Liverpool, but her captain’s name was Hawkins, and she was lost off Greenland in 1817). We may take it that the incident described in the song is not historical but imaginary, a stylisation like those thrilling engravings of whaling scenes that were once so popular. But the song’s pattern of departure, chase, and return home, was imitated in a large number of whaling ballads made subsequently.

“It is the ace and deuce of whale songs.” (A.L. Lloyd from album notes of a different version)


  • Brave Boys
  • Greenland
  • Greenland Fisheries
  • Greeland’s Icy Shores

RECORDINGS: (mp3’s available through


BONUS YOUTUBE VIDEO: The Pogues with video footage from a 1916 whaling expedition

Greenland Whale Fishery

‘Twas eighteen hundred and twenty four,
On March the eighteenth day,
We hoist our colors to the top of the mast,
And to Greenland bore away, brave boys,
And to Greenland bore away. 

Oh, the look-out up on the mainmast stood
With a spy-glass in his hand.
‘There’s a whale, there’s a whale,
and a whale-fish,’ he cried.
And she blows at every span, brave boys,
And she blows at every span.’ 

The captain stood on the quarterdeck,
And the ice was in his eye.
‘Overhaul, overhaul, let your jib-sheet fall,
And put your boats to sea, brave boys,
And put your boats to sea!

Oh, the boats got down and the men aboard,
And the whale was full in view.
Resolved, resolved was each whaler-man bold
To steer where the whale-fish blew, brave boys,
To steer where the whale-fish blew.

Now the harpoon struck & the lines played out,
But she gave such a flourish with her tail,
She capsized our boat and we lost five men,
And we could not catch that whale, brave boys,
And we could not catch that whale.

Oh, the losing of that sperm-whale fish
It grieved our captain sore,
But the losing of those five jolly tars,
Oh, it grieved him ten times more, brave boys,
Oh, it grieved him ten times more.

‘Up anchor now,’ the captain cried,
‘For the winter’s star do appear,
It is time for to leave this cold country,
And for England we will steer, brave boys,
And for England we will steer.’

Oh, Greenland is a barren place,
It’s a place that bears no green,
Where there’s ice & snow, and the whale-fish blows
And the daylight’s seldom seen, brave boys,
And the daylight’s seldom seen.


  • Folk Song Index: A Comprehensive Guide to the Florence E. Brunnings Collection, Florence E. Brunnings, Garland Publishing, Inc., New York and London 1981—Amazon Books
  • Country Music Sources: A Biblio-Discography of Commercially Recorded Traditional Music, Guthrie T. Meade, Jr. with Dick Spottswood and Douglas S. Meade, Southern Folklife Collection, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries, NC 2002—Amazon Books


NOTICE: I’m not the best guitar player or vocalist, but no one loves these songs more than I do. The tune and lyrics are in the public domain unless otherwise noted. The recording © copyright 2013 by Stephen Griffith and may be used by permission of the copyright holder. The variation of the song I’m posting is the version I perform and is not exactly replicating the sources cited, but is always in the same song family. If anyone has more details about this song, or believes I’ve stated something in error, please let me know. I’m also open to suggestions to improve the site. Thanks. sgg

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