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Song Spotlight: “Sloop John B”

  • Mood: Upbeat
  • Themes: Sailing, Caribbean Travel, Wanting to Go Home
  • Tempo: Brisk
  • Genre/style: 1960s Surf Rock

During the recent heat wave in our part of the world, I have been integrating the recording of “Sloop John B” by the Beach Boys into group music therapy sessions centered on the ocean and boating. Not only does this song provide beach-y musical support for movement to music or instrument playing, but it’s a good starting point for discussion on a couple of different levels.

First, a little history. The Beach Boys’ famous song is actually a cover version of a West Indies folk song collected by Carl Sandberg in 1927 and preserved in a field recording by Alan Lomax in 1935. Also preceding the Beach Boys’ version were recordings by the Weavers and the Kingston Trio.

Whether the song reflects actual historical events or not is unknown, but the song does tell a relatable story of a man and his grandfather sailing into port for a night of drinking and carousing then wanting to take the ship back home at the end of a rough night. On a concrete level, this song and its story can provide a framework for reminiscence on a few topics:

  • Sailing/boating
  • Traveling with family
  • Travels to Nassau, the Bahamas, or the Caribbean
  • Drinking/carousing/”rough” nights

Asking questions about these topics while listening to this song can prompt reminiscence and story-sharing.

On a wider, more abstract level, this song can provide the basis for discussion about the idea of “home.” The phrase, “I wanna go home” dominates the bridge and chorus. For people with dementia, who in their confusion might be fixated on saying, “I want to go home,” singing this song can provide validation for their words and the underlying emotion while gently redirecting their attention from their distress to the music. For people without these cognitive barriers, this song can spark a discussion about what has brought them away from home and why they want to go home. This could also be expressed through a songwriting exercise. Try these lyrics for the first part of the melody, for example:

I had to have surgery.
But I’m still not cancer-free.
I’ve been hospitalized for far too many days.
I wanna go home. Why don’t you let me go home?

I feel so lonely. I wanna go home.

Singing “I wanna go home” can be a way to release frustration, fear, or other difficult emotions at a time when this may not be possible.

Musically, what makes this song work? This song is in a simple verse-chorus form, and the addition of vocal harmonies in the chorus adds weight to the repeated idea of getting on a ship and going back home. The Beach Boys’ version of the song also has a distinct 1960s sound and is probably familiar to many baby boomer. The song also moves along at a decent tempo, supporting the idea of travel, or moving on.

What are your thoughts on “Sloop John B?” What are your other favorite songs by the Beach Boys or on the same topic of wanting to go home? Please let us know in the comments below.

This post is part of an occasional series on special songs to share with your loved ones. For more song spotlights, click here.

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