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The air was taken from a traditional Irish dance and march tune, "Oró Sé do Bheatha ’Bhaile" (Translated as "Oró, you are welcome home") originally in dorian mode. The same tune has also been used for other songs, possibly Ten Little Injuns.
The music was first reproduced in printed form in 1824-25 in Cole’s Selection of Favourite Cotillions published in Baltimore. However, the lyrics were first published in 1891 under the title "What to do with a Drunken Sailor?". Another version appears in The Shanty Book, Part I, Sailor Shanties, by Richard Runciman Terry, categorised as a "Windlass and Capstan" shanty. He says of it: "Although mostly used for windlass or capstan, Sir Walter Runciman tells me that he frequently sang to it for ’hand-over-hand’ hauling. Whall gives it on page 107 under the title ’Early in the morning.’ It is one of the few shanties that were sung in quick Time."
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