The Black Ballers were fast packet ships of the American Black Ball Line that sailed between New York and Liverpool in the second half of the nineteenth century. A sailor would arrive in America within four weeks of leaving England, and the return trip was usually less than three weeks. The faster the ship, the quicker a sailor would get paid, and the quicker he would be back to England, so naturally many sailors wanted to sail on the Black Ballers. Sea life in those days was ruled by the whip, and the captains of the Black Ballers had a reputation for being particularly brutal. When a sailor said that a man was blown down, it meant that he was knocked to the ground. Blow th' Man Down is a song about the unfair beating of sailors aboard these ships.
There seem to be three main variations on this popular chantey, all sung to the same melody. In the best known version, a flying-fish sailor, just in from Hong Kong, is mistaken by a policeman for a sailor off a Black Baller. Insulted, the sailor blows down the policeman, and subsequently goes to jail. According to Hugill, a flying-fish sailor was "a John who preferred the lands of the East and the warmth of the Trade Winds to the cold and misery of the Western Ocean."
In a more recent version, the singer
meets a pretty young damsel on Paradise Street.
In the oldest version, the singer describes the merriment of all the unknowing non-sailors signing up on a Black Baller, and how harsh the conditions become as soon as the ship's "clear of the land."