Sloop John B: Rolling Stones #276 of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2004)

Sloop John B
Single: Beach Boys
Album: Pet Sounds
B-side: You’re So Good to Me
Released: March 21, 1966 (US)
Released: April 15, 1966 (UK)
Genre: Folk rock, chamber pop, sea shanty
Songwriter: Traditional, arranged by Brian Wilson
Producer: Brian Wilson

“Sloop John B,” originally published as “The John B. Sails,” is a Bahamian folk song from Nassau. It was first transcribed by Richard Le Gallienne in the December 1916 issue of Harper’s Monthly Magazine (pages 81–90).   Carl Sandburg included a version in his 1927 collection of folksongs, The American Songbag

The lyrics describe a disastrous voyage on a sloop, and the narrator just wants to go home. Since the early 1950s, recordings were made by various artists with different titles, including “I Want to Go Home” and “Wreck of the John B.” The Beach Boys cover, named “Sloop John B,” was ranked Number 276 on Rolling Stone’s 2004 list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

The Weavers (1950)

The Weavers
The Weavers clockwise from left:
Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman, Ronnie Gilbert,

The Weavers were formed in November 1948 by Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman. They landed an engagement at the Village Vanguard jazz club, where they were discovered. After signing to Decca Records, their hit recordings introduced new audiences to such folk revival standards as Woody Guthrie’s 1935 tune “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh,” “On Top of Old Smoky,” “Rock Island Line,” and “The Wreck of the John B.” 

Kingston Trio (1958)

The Kingston Trio was formed in Palo Alto, California, by Dave Guard, Bob Shane, and Nick Reynolds from Menlo College. They launched the folk revival of the late 1950s to the late 1960s with unprecedented sales of LP records. 

The Kingston Trio
The Kingston Trio clockwise from left:
Dave Guard, Bob Shane, Nick Reynolds

Their success was the impetus for record labels to sign then-unknown Bob Dylan, to put Weaver’s co-founder Pete Seeger under contract, and to record the Greenwich Village-based trio Peter, Paul, and Mary. The trio recorded “The Wreck of the John B” for their self-titled debut album in 1958 

The Beach Boys (1963)

In 1961 in California, brothers Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson, their cousin Mike Love, and friend Al Jardine formed The Beach Boys. A garage band managed to play 1950s-style rock and roll. They re-assembled styles of music such as surf to include vocal jazz harmony. Their first national hit came in 1963 with “Surfin’ USA.” 

The Beach Boys publicity photo 1963
The Beach Boys publicity photo 1963 

In 1966, the Pet Sounds album and the “Good Vibrations” single raised the group’s prestige as rock innovators. The LP was a departure from the band’s earlier musical style. Brian Wilson wanted to make “a complete statement,” which he believed the Beatles had done with their newest album Rubber Soul. He later said: “It didn’t make me want to copy them but to be as good as them. I didn’t want to do the same kind of music, but on the same level.

Beach Boys Pet Sounds album cover

The Beach Boys’ Al Jardine, a folk music buff, played Brian the Kingston Trio’s recording of “The Wreck of the John B.” Wilson added elaborate vocals, a 12-string guitar part, and changed some of the lyrics. “This is the worst trip since I’ve been born” became “... I’ve ever been on” as a wink to acid culture. With Dennis Wilson acting as the cameraman, a music video set to “Sloop John B” was filmed for the UK’s Top of the Pops.

Beach Boys (2016)

In 1968, an instrumental version of “Sloop John B” was released on their Stack-O-Tracks album. In 2011, Fisherman’s Friends performed the song in acapella harmony at Cambridge Folk Festival. In 2016, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson and his touring band (including Al Jardine) performed Sloop John B live at Capitol Studios.


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