“A Salty Dog” – commentary


Vincent van Gogh (1889) – Google Cultural Institute



Set at sea from the perspective of a sailor, this is a song that Procol Harum’s lyricist Keith Reid considers one of his favourites

It has an apparently nautical theme, as indicated by its cover (a pastiche of the famous Player’s Navy Cut cigarette pack), and its title, which refers to a person who spends a lot of time on the ocean.

It may be regarded as a first-hand account (“your witness-my own hand”) of a group of sailors who seize a ship, kill the existing crew, and sail to a distant destination where they go ashore and destroy the boat.- “Explore the ship” and “let no one leave alive” indicate the violent take over of an unfamiliar ship that then sails to a safe haven, really beautiful because it also represents the fulfilment of their dreams (“sand so white, and sea so blue, no mortal place at all”).
Otherwise it is the simple story of a ship and its crew that, after following the captain’s orders, land upon a beautiful island.
According to another theory it refers to the mutiny of the Royal Navy vessel HMS Bounty, which occurred in the south Pacific in 1789. The sailors revolted against the strict discipline of Captain Bligh after being dazed by the sexual freedom of the women of Tahiti where the ship had stopped to collect and transport breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies. They had remained five months in Tahiti, forming relationships with native Polynesians. Therefore, after three weeks back at sea they disarmed the captain and the men remained faithful to him and abandoned them on a boat in the middle of the sea. While the mutineers settled on Tahiti or on Pitcairn Island.
However, the song may also be considered symbolic : a metaphor for life, death, and faith in God. It starts with the sinking of a ship rounding Cape Horn, which left no survivors (“and no one left alive.”). After that the journey continues in an afterlife ( “no mortal place at all”) from which it is impossible to go back to the earthly world (“and burnt the mast”) . This is accepted by everybody and their entrance into the afterlife is met with “tears of joy”, and the sense of eternity is expressed through the expression “many moons and many Junes” .
In any case the song portrays sailors risking their lives for passion for the sea, above all those who have been lost at sea over the centuries.

(Cape Horn is the most southerly point of South America: the waters around the Cape are particularly hazardous, owing to strong winds, large waves, strong currents and icebergs, which have made it notorious as a sailors’ graveyard.)

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