1. The Beach Boys, “Sloop John B”
Songs about ships have been around for as long as human beings have sung and sailed. But it took until 1966 for the ship song to be perfected. That year, The Beach Boys released its epochal album Pet Sounds—and aboard that sturdy vessel is “Sloop John B.” Tellingly, it’s not an original song; rather, it’s a reverent yet radical adaptation of a traditional West Indies folk tune previously recorded by everyone from The Kingston Trio to Johnny Cash. But The Beach Boys added a wash of symphonic wonder to the song that captures the swell and sway of a drunken boating trip. In doing so, the group not only delivered the definitive version of “Sloop John B” but the definitive song about a ship.
2. Gordon Lightfoot, “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald”
Perhaps owing to the tragic nature of so much nautical history and lore, few songs about ships are as jaunty as “Sloop John B.” Case in point: “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald” by Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot. The 1976 song commemorates, in a moody minor key, the 1975 sinking of the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior, which resulted in the deaths of all 29 crew members. “Wreck” is, in fact, so majestically morbid that it made John Cusack’s list of top five songs about death in High Fidelity.
3. Woody Guthrie, “Sinking Of The Reuben James”
Another song written in honor of a tragic last voyage—a specialty of singers like Stan Rogers and Johnny Horton—is Woody Guthrie’s “Sinking Of The Reuben James.” A piece of harrowing journalism set to folk, the song is a eulogy for the “hundred men [who] went down in that dark watery grave” when the ship they served on, the USS Reuben James, was torpedoed by a U-boat in 1941, the first American ship to be sunk by hostile forces in World War II. Guthrie renders the events with gravity and poetry, following the ship beneath the Atlantic until it settles in its eternal resting place “on that cold ocean floor.”
4. John Denver, “Calypso”
As befits a man as sunny as John Denver, the late singer-songwriter helped bring up the average mood factor of the ship song with “Calypso.” A hit in 1975, it pays tribute to the Calypso, Jacques Cousteau’s fabled ship of oceanic exploration and marine conservation. Its shantylike chorus is the stuff of rollicking sing-alongs, and Denver uses the verses to extol the enlightened virtues of the “crystal-clear ocean,” the “search of the answers to questions unknown,” and cute dolphins. As ship songs go, “Calypso” paints the brightest portrait of a life aquatic.
5. Gordon Bok, “The Schooner Ellenmore”
Native Mainer Gordon Bok has long been the patron saint of New England nautical songsmiths. His 1992 song “The Schooner Ellenmore”—delivered a cappella in Bok’s stentorian baritone—details with mythic atmosphere a spell of unrequited love between the narrator and the beautiful daughter of the captain of the song’s titular schooner. Ellenmore is the name of the boat, but in Bok’s throat it may as well represent every lover that ever got away.
6. Mountain, “Nantucket Sleighride”
Most songs about ships are written about real-life sailing vessels. And then there’s “Nantucket Sleighride” by Mountain. Penned from the perspective of a sailor about to embark on a whaling expedition aboard the Pequod, Captain Ahab’s doomed ship from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, the unusually tender 1971 song was a hit for the hard-rock band. Mountain isn’t the only band to have written about the Pequod; Umphrey’s McGee has an instrumental titled “The Pequod,” and German metal band Ahab has been known to dwell on the topic. But “Nantucket Sleighride”—named after the sailor’s term for when a ship is dragged by a harpooned whale—remains the original and best.
7. Sex Pistols, “Friggin’ In The Riggin’”
The Great Rock ’N’ Roll Swindle is a Sex Pistols album in name only, seeing as how much of it was recorded by remnants of the band before being released in 1979 after the Pistols’ breakup. It feels even less Pistols-y thanks to songs like “Friggin’ In The Riggin’.” An adaptation of a traditional sailing shanty sung (if you can call it that) by guitarist Steve Jones, “Friggin’” is a bawdy account of shenanigans onboard “the good ship Venus,” and it’s crammed to bursting with double entendres and sly winks and nods. The song has been interpreted more ably by many others, most recently Loudon Wainwright III, but there’s something saucier about a leering version with the Sex Pistols’ name on it.
8. Billy Joel, “The Downeaster Alexa”
Everyone from Jimmy Buffett to Christopher Cross to Crosby, Stills & Nash have sung about sailing—but they rarely if ever sing about a specific ship. But Billy Joel rolled up his sleeves and christened his poignant 1989 sailing song “The Downeaster Alexa” by naming it after his own boat (as well as his daughter Alexa). Lurching like a boat caught in rough waves, Joel’s voice pitches and rolls as he sings of “trawling Atlantis” and “sell[ing] no stripers”; although Joel’s boat is real, “The Downeaster Alexa” is a semi-fictionalized account of the actual hardships of Long Island fishermen. In other words, it’s Joel’s floating “Allentown.”
9. Bob Dylan, “Tempest”
No ship looms larger in the collective consciousness than the Titanic, and that legendary vessel has been the subject of numerous songs. In 2012, Bob Dylan got around to adding a tune to that canon: “Tempest,” off his album of the same name. For 14 minutes of folk strumming and vivid verse, Dylan delivers a seemingly endless saga of Coleridgean proportions that recounts the tale everyone knows. When it was announced that Dylan would be unleashing such an icon-on-icon epic, comedian Tim Heidecker beat him to the punch by parodying “Tempest” before it was even released. The funniest thing is, though, that Heidecker’s joke rivals Dylan’s earnest effort at making the Titanic somehow more immortal than it already is.