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The Handsome Cabin Boy
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> Cyril Tawney > Songs > The Female Cabin Boy
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The Female Cabin Boy / The Handsome Cabin Boy
; Master title: The Female Cabin Boy
; Laws N13
; G/D 1:181
; Ballad Index
; VWML CJS2/9/782
Cecilia Costello sang The Handsome Cabin Boy on 30 November 1951 in Birmingham in a recording made by Maria Slocombe and Patrick Shuldham-Shaw for the BBC. It was published in 1975 on her eponymous Leader album Cecilia Costello.
Jeannie Robertson of Aberdeen sang The Handsome Cabin Boy to Alan Lomax in London in November 1953. This recording was included in 1998 on her Rounder CD The Queen Among the Heather. Another Alan Lomax recording was included on the anthology Sailormen and Servingmaids (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 6; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1970). And she sang it on her 1959 Collector EP I Ken Where I'm Going. Norman Buchan commented in the last album's sleeve notes:
A fine version of a ballad which was popular in all parts of Britain. Cecil Sharp noted a version in Somerset in 1905 [ VWML CJS2/9/782 ] ; Ord printed a version in his Scottish Bothy [Songs and] Ballads and in this version of Jeannie's, listeners will recognise the tune as a variant of the traditional melody used for the Irish Johnstone's Motor Car. The theme of the female sailor or soldier is a common one in folk song—although the disclosure does not always take place amid such riotous good humour as this one.
Ewan MacColl sang The Handsome Cabin Boy on his and A.L. Lloyd's albums The Black Ball Line (1957) and A Hundred Years Ago (1963). This track was also included in the Topic Sampler No 7, Sea Songs and Shanties and on the French compilation Chants de Marins IV: Ballads, Complaintes et Shanties des Matelots Anglais. A.L. Lloyd also sang The Handsome Cabin Boy in 1957 on his and Ewan MacColl's Tradition album Blow Boys Blow. He commented in the album's sleeve notes:
The Handsome Cabin Boy portrays a common sailor's dream that among the crew is a girl dressed as a boy. Oddly enough, in songs based on this fantasy, it is nearly always an officer who discovers the girl's identity. In this case the plight of the pregnant cabin “boy” might be considered tragic, seen from the girl's viewpoint. But as sailors see it, the situation is inexhaustibly comic. The version of this much-loved ballad that is sung here is unusual for the unequivocal role played by the captain's wife.
Isabel Sutherland sang The Handsome Cabin-Boy in a recording made by Peter Kennedy at Cecil Sharp House, London, in 1960 on the HMV album A Pinch of Salt: British Sea Songs Old and New.
Martin Carthy recorded The Handsome Cabin Boy in 1965 for his first album, Martin Carthy and Sweeney's Men did it in 1968 for their LP Sweeney's Men.
Bob Hart sang The Female Cabin Boy at home in Snape, Suffolk in 1969 and July 1972. The later recording made by Tony Engle was published in 1973 later on Hart's Topic album Songs from Suffolk, and it was included in 1998 on the Topic anthology We've Received Orders to Sail (The Voice of the People Series Volume 12). The earlier recording was made by Bill Leader and was included in 2007 on Hart's Musical Tradition anthology A Broadside. Rod Stradling commented in the accompanying booklet:
A well-known song in England, but not one to travel, it seems; two sightings in N America and four in Scotland complete Roud's 85 instances. Cecilia Costello, the White sisters, Charlie Wills and Robert Parish all knew it here, and it was printed in a good number of books and a great many broadsides.
It's one of a number of songs about girls impersonating sailors (for numerous reasons) and heading off for a life on the briny—The Female Warrior, Jackie Munro, William Taylor, etc. Few of them seemed to end up in the kind of trouble our present heroine does, but her misfortune is treated as a good joke by everyone else, including the Captain's equivocal wife!
Walter Pardon sang The Handsome Cabin Boy (recorded by Mike Yates in the singer's home on 25 June 1978) on his Topic anthology CD A World Without Horses.
Cyril Tawney sang The Female Cabin Boy on his 1992 cassette of songs of seafarers and the fairer sex, In Every Port. This track was also included in 2003 on his CD Nautical Tawney.
Louis Killen sang The Handsome Cabin Boy in 1995 on his CD Sailors, Ships & Chanteys.
Danny Spooner sang The Handsome Cabin Boy on his 2002 CD Launch Out on the Deep. He noted:
This came to me from the singing of Gary Greenwood when we lived in Sydney shortly after I arrived in Australia. Roy Palmer says it appeared many times on broadsides and I'm not surprised. The perennial fantasy of sailors hoping to find a buxom wench in the next hammock was and is alive and well.
The Spiers Family sang The Handsome Cabin Boy on their 2012 album Oh, Gin I Were There…. They noted:
Emma [Spiers] learned her version of this tale of adventure from the late Peter Hall who collected it in 1966 from 95 year old Jimmy Brown of Muir of Fowlis near Alford. Once again it features a young lady dressing as a man—this time to find adventure on the high seas.
This video shows the Spiers Family singing The Handsome Cabin Boy in June 2013:
Will Noble sang The Female Cabin Boy on his 2017 Veteran CD It's Gritstone for Me. Brian Peters and John Howson commented in the album's liner notes:
One of several traditional English songs in which young women disguise themselves as sailors; in this case the consequences are more awkward than usual, but the mood remains light-hearted. Will learned it from Arthur Howard.
The Exmouth Shanty Man sang The Handsome Cabin Boy in 2022 on their WildGoose album Tall Ships and Tavern Tales. They noted:
A popular broadside ballad of shipboard carryings-on. Sung by Louis Killen (among others) whose version derives from that sung by one of the greatest ballad singers of all times, Jeannie Robertson of Aberdeen. Found all over England as well as Scotland.
Jeannie Robertson sings The Handsome Cabin Boy
It's of a pretty fair maid, to let youse understand,
She had a mind for rovin' to some foreign land;
She dressed herself in sailor's clothes and boldly did appear,
Engagin' with a captain givin' service for a year.
For the wind it bein' in favour and they soon set off to sea,
The lady to he captain said, “My love, I wish you joy,
That we have engaged such a handsome cabin boy.”
For his cheeks appeared like roses and his side-locks they did curl,
And oftentimes the sailors smiled and said he lokkit like a girl;
But by eatin' cabin biscuits his colours did destroy
And the wyme did swell our pretty belle, our handsome cabin boy.
“O doctor, dear doctor!” for the cabin boy did cry,
The sailors swore with all their might that the cabin boy would die;
But the doctor run with all his might, he was smilin' at the fun,
For to think a sailor lad would have a dochter or a son.
But when the sailors heard the joke thay a' began to stare,
“For the child belongs to none of us,” a' solemn they did swear;
“But the lady and the captain thay have oftimes kissed and toyed,
And we'll soon find out the secret of our handsome cabin boy.”
They a' took up a bumper and they drunk success to trade:
“It's twice unto this cabin boy, she's neither man nor maid;
But if this war should rise again our sailors to destroy,
And we'll ship some able seamen same's our handsome cabin boy.”
it was through the Bay of Biscay our gallant ship did plough,
And that night the sailors they kicked up a bloomin' row;
They took their bundles from their hammocks and the rest they did destroy,
And it was all through the groanin' of our handsome cabin boy.
A.L. Lloyd sings The Handsome Cabin Boy
It's of a pretty female as you may understand,
Her mind being bent for rambling into some foreign land.
She dressed herself in sailor's clothes or so it does appear,
And she hired with a captain to serve him for a year.
The captain's wife she being on board, she seemed in great joy
To think her husband had engaged such a handsome cabin boy.
And now and then she slipped him a kiss, and she would have liked to toy,
But it was the captain found out the secret of the handsome cabin boy.
Her cheeks they were like roses and her hair all in a curl,
The sailors often smiled and said, he looks just like a girl.
But eating of the captain's biscuit her colour did destroy
And the waist did swell of pretty Nell, the handsome cabin boy.
it was in the Bay of Biscay our gallant ship did plough.
One night among the sailors was a fearful flurryin' row.
They tumbled from their hammocks for their sleep it did destroy
And they swore about the groaning of the handsome cabin boy.
“Oh doctor dear, oh doctor,” the cabin boy did cry,
“Me time has come, I am undone and I shall surely die.”
The doctor came a-running and smiling at the fun,
To think a sailor lad should have a daughter or a son.
The sailors when they saw the joke, they all did stand and stare.
The child belong to none of them, they solemnly did swear.
And the captain's wife she says to him, “My dear I wish you joy,
For it's either you or I betrayed the handsome cabin boy.”
So each man took his drop of rum and he drunk success to trade,
And likewise to the cabin boy who was neither man nor maid.
It's hoping the wars don't rise again, us sailors to destroy,
And here's hoping for a jolly lot more like the handsome cabin boy.
Marin Carthy sings The Handsome Cabin Boy
'Tis of a pretty female as you shall understand
Her mind was set on roving into some foreign land.
Attired in sailor's clothing she boldly did appear
And engaged with a captain to serve him for one year.
She engaged with the captain a cabin boy to be.
The wind stood fine and clearly and so they put to sea.
The captain's lady being on board, she seemed for to enjoy,
So glad that the captain had engaged with a handsome cabin boy.
Now so nimble was this pretty maid, she did her duty well,
But mark what follows after, the song it soon will tell.
By eating of the captain's biscuits her colour did destroy,
And the waist did swell of pretty Nell, the handsome cabin boy.
Now as through the Bay of Biscay our gallant ship did plough,
One night among the sailors there was a pretty row.
They bundled from their hammocks which did their rest destroy,
They swore about the groaning of the handsome cabin boy.
“Oh doctor, oh doctor,” the cabin boy did cry,
The sailors swore by all and one the cabin boy would die.
The doctor ran with all his might, a-smiling at the fun,
To think that a sailor lad could have a daughter or a son.
Now when the sailors all heard the joke, they all began to stare,
The child belonged to none of them, they solemnly declared.
The lady to the captain said, “My lad, I wish you joy,
For it's either you or I betrayed the handsome cabin boy.”
Bob Hart sings The Female Cabin Boy
For it's of a fair young maiden, as you will understand,
Who had a mind for roving into a foreign land.
So dressed in man's apparel, she boldly did appear,
She engaged with a captain to serve him for a year.
She engaged with a captain his cabin boy to be,
The wind was in his favour and he put out to sea.
The captain's lady being on board, oh, it was to her joy,
That her husband had engaged with that handsome cabin boy.
Her cheeks were red like roses and, with her side-lock curl,
The sailors often laughed and said she looked just like a girl.
But eating captain's biscuits her colour did destroy,
And the waist did swell on pretty Nell, the female cabin boy.
'Twas in the Bay of Biscay our gallant ship did plough.
One night among the sailors there was an awful row.
They tumbled from their hammocks 'cause their rest it did destroy,
And it was all about the moaning of that female cabin boy.
“Oh, doctor, oh, doctor,” the cabin boy did cry.
The sailors swore by all the gods the cabin boy would die.
The doctor came a-running and a-laughing at the fun,
That a cabin boy should either have a daughter or a son.
Now, when the sailors heard of this, they all began to swear.
It did belong to none of them, they solemnly declare.
The captain's lady standing near to her husband said so coy,
“It's either you or I betrayed that female cabin boy.”
The Spiers Family sing The Handsome Cabin Boy
It is of a brisk young fair maid as you will understand,
She had a mind for rovin in tae some foreign land.
Dressed in some sailor's clothing she boldly did appear,
Engaging wi a captain tae serve him for a year.
She engaged wi the captain his cabin boy tae be,
Oh the wind it bein in favour they soon pit oot tae sea.
The captain's lady bein on board she seemed in great joy
So glad the captain was o his handsome cabin boy.
Well so nimble was this pretty maid she did her duty well,
But mark what follows after the song itself will tell.
Wi eatin cabin biscuits her colour did destroy
And the waist did swell o pretty Nell the handsome cabin boy.
As through the Bay o Biscay this gallant ship did plough,
That night amangst the sailors there rose a bloomin row.
They bundled fae their hammocks and it did their rest annoy
And they swore aboot the groanin o the handsome cabin boy.
“Oh doctor, dear doctor,” the cabin boy did cry,
The sailors swore by a that's good their cabin boy should die.
The doctor ran wi a his might still smilin at the fun
For tae think a sailor lad should have a dochter or a son.
And when the joke they did find oot they a began tae stare,
That child belonged tae nane o them they solemnly declared.
Said the lady tae the captain, “My love I wish you joy
For it's either you or I have betrayed the cabin boy.”
So they a took up a bumper and drank success tae trade
And likewise tae the sailor lad though neither man nor maid.
And if the wars should rise again our seamen to employ
We shall ship some bonnie sailors like the handsome cabin boy.
A.L. Lloyd's version transcribed by Reinhard Zierke; Martin Carthy's version transcribed by Wolfgang Hell.