Sloop John B (as made famous by The Beach Boys)

“Sloop John B” (originally published as “The John B. Sails”) is a Bahamian folk song from Nassau. A transcription by Richard Le Gallienne was published in 1916, and a version was included in Carl Sandburg’s The American Songbag in 1927. Since the early 1950s there have been many recordings of the song with variant titles including “I Want to Go Home” and “Wreck of the John B”.

The 1966 folk rock adaptation by the Beach Boys was produced and arranged by bandleader Brian Wilson, and served as the lead single of their 11th studio album Pet Sounds. The song peaked at number three in the US on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, number two in the UK, and number one in several other countries. It remains one of the group’s best-remembered recordings of their mid 1960s period, containing an unusual and elaborate a cappella vocal section not found in other pop music of the era.[1]

“The John B. Sails” was transcribed by Richard Le Gallienne, with five verses and the chorus published in his article “Coral Islands and Mangrove-Trees” in the December 1916 issue of Harper’s Monthly Magazine (pp. 81–90). The first two verses and chorus were also published in Chapter IV of Gallienne’s 1917 novel Pieces of Eight.[3]

Carl Sandburg included the first three verses and chorus of “The John B. Sails” in his 1927 collection of folksongs, The American Songbag. He states that he collected it from John T. McCutcheon (a political cartoonist from Chicago) and his wife, Evelyn Shaw McCutcheon, who at the time owned Blue Lagoon Island, a Cay off of Nassau. The McCutcheons told him:

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 1926, extracted a knee of horseflesh and a ring-bolt. These relics are now preserved and built into the Watch Tower, designed by Mr. Howard Shaw (ed. note: Evelyn Shaw McCutcheon’s father) and built on our southern coast a couple of points east by north of the star Canopus.

The Kingston Trio’s 1958 recording of “The John B. Sails” was recorded under the title “The Wreck of the John B.”[7] It was the direct influence on the Beach Boys’ version. The Beach Boys’ Al Jardine was a keen folk music fan, and he suggested to Brian Wilson that the Beach Boys should do a cover version of the song. As Jardine explains:

Brian was at the piano. I asked him if I could sit down and show him something. I laid out the chord pattern for ‘Sloop John B.’ 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. So what I did was to sit down and play it for him in the Beach Boys idiom. 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. The original song is basically a three-chord song, and I knew that wouldn’t fly.

Jardine updated the chord progression by having the subdominant (D♭ major) move to its relative minor (B♭ minor) before returning to the tonic (A♭ major), thus altering a portion of the song’s progression from IV — I to IV — ii — I. This device is heard immediately after the lyric “into a fight” and “leave me alone”.

So I put some minor changes in there, and it stretched out the possibilities from a vocal point of view. Anyway, I played it, walked away from the piano and we went back to work. The very next day, I got a phone call to come down to the studio. Brian played the song for me, and I was blown away. The idea stage to the completed track took less than 24 hours.[8]

Wilson elected to change some lyrics: “this is the worst trip since I’ve been born” to “this is the worst trip I’ve ever been on”, “I feel so break up” to “I feel so broke up”, and “broke into the people’s trunk” to “broke in the captain’s trunk”. The first lyric change has been suggested by some to be a subtle nod to the 1960s psychedelia subculture.[2][9][10]

“Sloop John B” closes the first side of Pet Sounds, an album commonly interpreted as a romantic and introspective concept album. This decision is argued by many to contradict the album’s lyrical flow, as author Jim Fusilli explains: “It’s anything but a reflective love song, a stark confession or a tentative statement of independence like the other songs on the album. And it’s the only song on Pet Sounds Brian didn’t write.” However, Fusilli posits that the track fits musically with the album, citing the track’s chiming guitars, doubletracked basses, and staccato rhythms.[11]

Author Jim DeRogatis suggested that the song does fit in the album due to its key lyric “I want to go home” reflecting other songs themed around an escape to somewhere peaceful — namely “Let’s Go Away for Awhile” and “Caroline, No”.[12]

The instrumental section of the song was recorded on July 22, 1965, at United Western Recorders, Hollywood, California, the session being engineered by Chuck Britz and produced by Brian Wilson. The master take of the instrumental backing took fourteen takes to achieve.

The vocal tracks were recorded over two sessions. The first was recorded on December 22, 1965, at Western Recorders, produced by Wilson. The second, on December 29, added a new lead vocal and Billy Strange’s 12-string electric guitar part. Jardine explained that Wilson “lined us 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. 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. Wilson and Mike ended up singing it.”[13] On the final recording, Brian Wilson sang the first and third verses and Mike Love sang the second.

Kent Hartman, in his book The Wrecking Crew, described Billy Strange’s contribution to the song. Brian Wilson called Strange into the studio one Sunday, played him the rough recording, and told him he needed an electric twelve-string guitar solo in the middle of the track. When Strange replied that he did not own a twelve string, Wilson responded by calling Glenn Wallichs, the head of Capitol Records and owner of Wallichs Music City. A Fender Electric XII and Twin Reverb amplifier were quickly delivered (despite the shop they were ordered from being closed on Sundays), and Strange recorded the guitar part in one take. Wilson then gave Strange $2,000 to cover the cost of the equipment.[14]

During the summer of 1965 Wilson met future Smile collaborator Van Dyke Parks after Parks was invited by David Crosby to listen to an early mix of “Sloop John B”.[15]

Brian Wilson – lead and backing vocals
Mike Love – lead and backing vocals
Dennis Wilson – backing vocals[17]
Al Jardine – backing vocals[17]
Carl Wilson – backing vocals[17]
Bruce Johnston — backing vocals[17]
Hal Blaine – drums
Chuck Britz – engineer
Frank Capp – glockenspiel
Al Casey – acoustic rhythm guitar
Jerry Cole – 12-string lead guitar
Steve Douglas – temple blocks
Carol Kaye – electric bass
Al De Lory – tack piano
Jay Migliori – flute
Jim Horn – flute
Jack Nimitz – bass saxophone
Lyle Ritz – string bass
Billy Strange – 12-string lead guitar, overdubbed 12-string lead guitars
Tony (surname unknown) – tambourine