John Kanaka is a well-liked hauling shanty. The simple structure allows for easily-improvised verses. It was popularized by Stan Hugill who learned it from Harding "the Barbarian" of Barbados:

He sang it with many falsetto yelps and hitches almost impossible to imitate. The chorus is of Polynesian origin and I should say the words 'tulai ē' were Samoan. It has the not so common form of three solos and three refrains.

In this aspect, the multiple voices make the song similar to Mobile Bay. Hugill goes on note that Dana's Two Years Before the Mast makes frequent reference to the work-songs of the Kanaka (Hawaiian) crews loading hides on the California coast. "It seems feasible," he writes, "that these Kanaka songs would be adapted for use by the white seamen, who would give them white men's solos and keep the Polynesian refrains. If this did occur, they have all been lost" except the present potential candidate.

Hugill believed he was the first to publish the tune, but in fact it appears without melody in Eckstorm & Smyth's Minstrelsy of Maine (1927) under the title Too-li-aye and with the refrain "Jan Kanaganaga". The song was contributed by Captain J. A. Creighton of Thomaston, Maine, who described it as a "negro chantey" that never failed to "bring down the house when sung by a few old salts that know how to get the funny yodel-like notes that were common in the good old times of the down-east square rigger".

Kanaka is a term of Polynesian origin referring to Polynesian people, many of whom worked in British colonies and the North American fur trade or goldmines, and especially to native Hawaiians. Another reference says the word is Hawaiian for "man", "manly", and "the people". There was also some confusion among sailors about whether it referred to Canadian Canucks.