Salt Horse, Salt Horse, both near and far,
You’re food for ev’ry hard work’d tar;
In strongest brine you have been sunk,
Until as hard an coarse as “Junk;”
To eat such tough and wretched fare,
Would whiten e’en a —– [sic] hair,
Salt Horse, Salt Horse, What brought you here?
Salt horse, salt horse, we’d have you know
That to the “Galley” you must go;
The cook without a sign of grief
Will boil you down, and call you beef;
And, we poor sailors standing near,
Must eat you, though you look so queer;
Salt Horse, Salt Horse, What brought you here? (Davis & Tozer, 86f)
Improperly salted beef, also commonly referred to as “salt junk,” was such an ordinary occurrence on ships that it made its way into shipboard culture. The sea shanty, “The Dead Horse” (also known as “Old Horse,” “Salt Horse,” “Poor Old Man,” or “The Sailor’s Grace”) had many uses and rituals associated with it on both British and American ships. The ditty was often sung on 19th-century American ships when food was being served*. It was typical for greedy stewards to take the first pick of salt meat when a cask was opened, leaving only the poor cuts for the crew; this leftover meat was called “old horse” and the name seems to have originated from a rumor among sailors. In Richard Henry Dana Jr’s memoir, Two Years Before the Mast (1840), he notes that the shanty originated from the rumor of a beef-dealer in Boston who was found guilty of having sold an actual old horse for ships’ stores instead of cattle. The beef-dealer was sentenced to prison for the amount of time it took him to consume all the horse meat he had attempted to sell. Ever since this incident, when sailors received a particularly miserable nugget of meat, they would stab at it viciously “and with an oath that would arrest the attention of [anyone], hold it above the pan and reverently proceed to recite the well-known rhyme” (Stuart, 103).
Many different variations of the shanty exist but here are a few versions:
(From: Frank, Stuart M. Jolly Sailors Bold: Ballads and Songs of the American Sailor. East Windsor, NJ, Cansco Music, 2010.)
*Note: This shanty was sung for other reasons as well, including when the first cask of salt meat was opened on a journey, or when paying off the “dead horse” of debt sailors would often acquire one month before leaving port.