Dating back to around the 1850s and apparently attributable to British sailors who defected to Mexcio, Santiana (exact spelling and lyrics vary, as is often the case with folk music) is a sea shanty about Mexican general and eventual President Antonio López de Santa Anna — the correct spelling and pronunciation of his name was clearly lost as the shanty developed; variations include “Santianna”, Santiana”, “Santy Anna”, “Santayana”, “Santiano”, and “Santy Anno”.
Santa Anna is famous as the Mexican leader during the Battle of the Alamo and his subsequent defeats in the Battle of San Jacinto and the Mexican-American War — alluded to in the song, the General Taylor who “took his life” is the eventual President Zachary Taylor.
Fun fact: My fingers almost outpaced my brain just now and wrote that as “James Taylor“…
Broadly, the song is a biography of Santa Anna, though one that complete garbles the historical details. Perhaps unsurprising if the song originated with British sailors who wouldn’t necessarily have the greatest grasp of the Mexican-American war.
For example, Molly-Del-Rey is held to refer to either Monterrey or Molino del Rey and Santa Anna did not in fact, gain the day at either of those places (they were both American victories). Nor did he lose both his legs, though he did lose his left before the Mexican-American War (and his prosthetic leg was ultimately looted by a mob when he was overthrown as President of Mexico). Also, he wasn’t killed during the War (dying in exile in 1876), definitely not killed by Taylor and not subsequently buried off Cape Horn.
Now, in part because the song fudges the details, I have a hard time telling if the song is supposed to be a sincere paean in praise of Santa Anna or a scathing satire of Santa Anna.
Though, of course, he’s been dead for nearly 150 years, so I feel like most present-day singers or listeners are just going to enjoy the song as a catchy tune. It’s 2023, both 19th-century Mexican politics and most manual labour required aboard a sailing ship have largely been rendered obsolete…
As is often the case with sea shanties, Santiana has a clear call-and-response format:
Well, heave her up and away we’ll go
Heave her up and away we’ll go
Along the plains of Mexico.
It’s a lot easier to explain in song, so here’s Santiana performed by British a capella group and TikTok sensations The Longest Johns:
You know, in hindsight, I really should be listening to more Pirate and Pirate-adjacent music…
Of course, I do write about Pirates, and you can read this week’s chapter here:
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