Doodling on the Dulcimer: Jamaican Folk Tune, “Day O”

I like to doodle around on the dulcimer and see what songs I can play. It is especially pleasing when I discover a song that is familiar and popular. The Jamaican folk tune, “Day O” or the “Banana Boat Song”, is one such song. It is American singer, Harry Belafonte’s, signature song. He recorded the song in 1956 and several others recorded similar versions around the same time. The song has a simple melody; it is a “call and answer song”. It is mesmerizing and is hard to stop playing once you begin.

This song has a syncopated rhythm and a strong bass beat. Harry’s vocal singing is free flowing and strong. It is a beautiful song. I always assumed the song was a calypso tune. But according to Wikipedia, calypso tunes originated in the Caribbean countries of Trinidad and Tobago. The folk tunes of Jamaica are of the Mento style. But to me, that is all semantics.

The song is a work song about dock workers loading bananas onto the boats during the night. They look forward to daylight when the “Tallyman”, who takes inventory, comes so they can go home. It is a call and answer song, with the soloist singing the lyrics and the chorus of workers answering “daylight coming and I want to go home.”

Harry Belafone’s album, Calypso, released in 1956, is supposedly the first one to sell 1 million copies according to BMI. Can we remember that far back?

I am a collector of folk song books. Often I’ll refer to one of these books to make sure I have the tune correct as well as the lyrics. These old song books make excellent references and are a good source of songs. Are the songs copyrighted? Usually they are. The tunes are folk tunes in the public domain — I will often combine several sources and include the melody as I learned it to change it up. Actually, “Day O” is not in either of these books, now I can’t remember which one I used.

These two song books go back prior to 1918. They are now 100 years old and the songs are all in the public domain as the copyright laws have expired. The song book on the left is from my father or grandparents. An original copy.

Day O

I have two versions of the song; one is a simple version without a calypso rhythm and the other has chords and a syncopated rhythm. Play which ever you like. Playing a syncopated rhythm is another discussion. You almost have to “feel the rhythm.” The main notes are not played on the down beat. Either way, this is a fun song to play.

I included chords for D and A7 on the traditional version on the first two measures (continue these the entire song). Play the chords “pick-strum” style, bass string first, to add a strong beat

Easy Version:

The traditional version has 2 pages. Page 1:

And, page 2:

And here are the PDF files:

Day-O – Easy

And traditional veresion:

Day-O – Traditional


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s