The usual tune for this dance was first printed as the "College Hornpipe" in 1797 or 1798 by J. Dale of London. It was found in manuscript collections before then – for instance the fine syncopated version in the William Vickers manuscript, written on Tyneside, dated 1770. The dance imitates the life of a sailor and their duties aboard ship. Due to the small space that the dance required, and no need for a partner, the dance was popular on-board ship.
Samuel Pepys referred to it in his diary as "The Jig of the Ship" and Captain Cook, who took a piper on at least one voyage, is noted to have ordered his men to dance the hornpipe in order to keep them in good health. The dance on-ship became less common when fiddlers ceased to be included in ships' crew members.
In dramatic stage productions, from around the sixteenth century, a popular feature was a sea dance. But the nineteenth century saw the more familiar form of the "sailors' hornpipe" introduced. Nautical duties (for example the hauling of ropes, rowing, climbing the rigging and saluting) provided the dance movements.
During the Last Night of the Proms in London, when the tune is played as part of Sir Henry Wood's Fantasia on British Sea Songs, the spectators bring miniature foghorns and party horns and blow them along to the music, creating a loud, frenetic finale as the music reaches its fastest speed.
The tune was played in the animated Popeye cartoons beginning in the 1930s, usually as the first part of the opening credits theme, which then segued into an instrumental of "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man".
This tune has been recorded by:
- Mike Oldfield on Tubular Bells (1973) and Tubular Bells 2003 (2003)
- Achim Reichel as "Piratentanz" on Klabautermann (1977)
- Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Mark O'Connor on Appalachia Waltz (1996)
- Carlos Núñez on Cinema Do Mar (2005)
- Broadside Electric, on Black-edged Visiting Card
- The Spotnicks as "Bach Goes to Sea" in 1963
- The Tornados as "Popeye Twist" in 1962
- "MacJams.com – Song: The Sailor's Hornpipe by Andronis". Macjams.com. Retrieved 12 January 2021.
- "The sailor's hornpipe dance". Rmg.co.uk. 11 August 2015. Retrieved 12 January 2021.
- "SAIL AWAY LADIES [1A]". Ibiblio.org. Retrieved 12 January 2021.
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- "What are the origins of the sailor's hornpipe? : Frequently asked questions : Maritime, sea & ships : Fact files & in-depth : Learning : NMM". Nmm.ac.uk. Retrieved 12 January 2021.
- Video on YouTube