The song tells of a whaling expedition that leaves for Greenland. The lookout spots a "whalefish", and harpoon boats are launched. However, the whale strikes the boat with its tail, capsizing it, and several men are killed. The captain grieves over losing his prey, but especially for having lost his men. He then orders the ship to sail for home, calling Greenland a "dreadful place."
Like most traditional songs, "Greenland Whale Fisheries" exists in different versions. Some change details (such as the date of the expedition), and others add or remove verses. Perhaps due to the wide influence of Moby-Dick, some modern versions, including the one recorded by The Pogues for their album Red Roses for Me, flip the captain's expression of grief to make him regret losing his catch even more than losing his crew.
In the version popularized by The Weavers and Peter, Paul and Mary, a shanty recorded by Alan Lomax from a Barbadian fisherman is appended, which begins, "When the whale gets strike, and the line run down, and the whale makes a flunder with her tail...
A stanza was also sung "un-drunkenly" by Bender the robot, in the Futurama episode "The Bird-Bot Of Ice-Catraz", as Bender grieved that his best friend Fry no longer respected him.