“Drunken Sailor” is a sea shanty, also known as “What Shall We Do with a/the Drunken Sailor?”
The shanty was sung to accompany certain work tasks aboard sailing ships, especially those that required a bright walking pace. It is believed to originate in the early 19th century or before, during a period when ships’ crews, especially those of military vessels, were large enough to permit hauling a rope whilst simply marching along the deck. With the advent of merchant packet and clipper ships and their smaller crews, which required different working methods, use of the shanty appears to have declined or shifted to other, minor tasks.
“Drunken Sailor” was revived as a popular song among non-sailors in the 20th century, and grew to become one of the best-known songs of the shanty repertoire among mainstream audiences. It has been performed and recorded by many musical artists and appeared in many popular media.
Although the song’s lyrics vary, they usually contain some variant of the question, “What shall we do with a drunken sailor, early in the morning?”
In some styles of performance, each successive verse suggests a method of sobering or punishing the drunken sailor. In other styles, further questions are asked and answered about different people.