> A.L. Lloyd > Songs > The Golden Vanity
> Tony Rose > Songs > The Golden Vanitee
> Cyril Tawney > Songs > The Merry Golden Tree
> Brass Monkey > Songs > The Old Virginia Lowlands

The Golden Vanity / The Old Virginia Lowlands

[ Roud 122 ; Child 286 ; G/D 1:37 ; Ballad Index C286 ; Bodleian Roud 122 ; Wiltshire Roud 122 ; trad.]

From W. Bolton, Southport, Lancashire; noted in 1906 by Ann Gilchrist. In some versions of this widespread and well-known ballad with many versions, the enemy is Turkish, Spanish or French. Fundamentally, it is a story of betrayal and rarely does it have a happy ending. Sometimes the boy drowns and his ghost returns to sink his own ship. Mr Bolton explained that the “black bear skin” was the cabin boy's covering at night; he wished to wear it as a disguise in the water. Version have been reported from Wiltshire and Cornwall, some cite the hero as being Sir Walter Raleigh.

The ballad was also collected by F.J. Child and sung by A.L. Lloyd in 1956 on Volume III of his and Ewan MacColl's anthology of Child ballads, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Lloyd also later included it in his Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. Ewan MacColl sang the ballad as The Sweet Kumadie in 1964 on his and A.L. Lloyd's Topic album English and Scottish Folk Ballads. This track was included in 2003 on his anthology The Definitive Collection.

Dodie Chalmers of Turriff, Aberdeenshire, sang The Golden Victory to Seamus Ennis on July 16, 1952. This BBC recording was included in 2012 on the anthology Good People, Take Warning (The Voice of the People Volume 23).

Bill Cameron of St. Mary’s, Isles of Scilly, sang The Golden Vanity to Peter Kennedy on November 21, 1956. This BBC recording was included on the anthology The Child Ballads 2 (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 5; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1968).

Paddy Bell sang The Golden Vanity, accompanied by Martin Carthy on guitar, in 1965 on her album Paddie Herself. The album's liner notes commented:

The cabin boy of The Golden Vanity ranks alongside John Henry as one of the indestructible folk heroes. This is a very early ballad, known originally as Sir Walter Raleigh Sailing in the Lowlands, and, as such it was collected by Samuel Pepys. Paddie ignores the Scottish version of the song which gives the boy a happy ending.

The Halliard sang Sailing for the Lowlands Low in 1967 on their Saga album It's the Irish in Me.

Tony Rose recorded The Golden Vanitee in 1970 for his first album, Young Hunting. He sang a slightly shorter version live at Eagle Tavern, New York, in 1981, leaving out the last but one verse. This recording was included in 2008 on his posthumous CD Exe. Tony Rose commented in the original album's sleeve notes:

This version of the Golden Vanitee, as taken from Stan Hugill's Shanties from the Seven Seas, is a particularly detailed one, with perhaps an unexpected element of humour here and there.

Martin Simpson sang Golden Vanity in 1976 as the title track of his Trailer album, Golden Vanity.

Johnny Doughty sang The Golden Vanity at home in Brighton, Sussex, in Summer 1976 to Mike Yates. This recording was published a year later on his 1977 Topic album of traditional songs from the Sussex Coast, Round Rye Bay for More, and in 1996 on the Topic anthology Hidden English: A Celebration of English Traditional Music. Mike Yates commented in the original album's notes:

Sir Walter Rawleigh has built a ship in the Netherlands,
Sir Walter Rawleigh has built a ship in the Netherlands,
And it is called the Sweet Trinity,
And was taken by the false gallaly,
Sailing in the Lowlands.

So begins a blackletter broadside, “shewing how the famous ship called the Sweet Trinity was taken by a false Gally, and how it was again restored by the craft of a little sea-boy, who sunk the Gally,” that was printed during the period 1682-85 by Joshua Conyers, “at the Black-Raven, the 1st shop in Fetter-lane, next Holborn.”

The history books appear to have missed this particular episode in Raleigh’s life—no doubt because it was a flight of Conyers’, or some other unknown printer’s, imagination; a simple attempt to increase sales by the addition of a romantic and well-known name to an otherwise commonplace tale. Whatever the origin, the ballad certainly caught the popular imagination with the result that more than a hundred sets have been collected throughout England, Scotland, America and Australia. Johnny’s final couplet is, to my knowledge, unique to his version.

Ian Manuel sang The Sweet Kumadie on his 1977 Topic album of Scots traditional songs, The Dales of Caledonia.

The Packmen sang Golden Vanity on their 1978 Fellside album The Packmen's Blue Record.

Lizzie Higgins sang The Golden Victory on a bonus track of the digital download reissue of her 1985 Lismor album What a Voice.

Cyril Tawney sang The Merry Golden Tree in 1992 on his Neptune Tapes cassette Little Boy Billee. This track was also included in 2007 on his anthology The Song Goes On.

Jez Lowe (vocals, guitar) and Linda Adams (concertina) recorded The Golden Vanity in 1993 or 1994 for the Fellside CD A Selection from The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs.

Steeleye Span recorded The Golden Vanity in 1995 during the Time recording sessions. However, it did not appear on this album but was later released on the two Park Records samplers The Best of British Folk Rock and A Stroll Through the Park, and in 2015 on Catch Up—The Essential Steeleye Span.

Martin Carthy and John Kirkpatrick sang this song as The Old Virginia Lowlands in 1998 on Brass Monkey's third album Sound and Rumour. Martin Carthy commented in the record's sleeve notes:

The Old Virginia Lowlands is from one of Stan Hugill's books. It's a version of The Golden Vanity from Stan's family, and must be one of the few versions which is not just a historical curiosity, but a real live, feet-on-the-ground story of real betrayal of real people.

Sandra Kerr, Nancy Kerr and James Fagan sang Sir Walter Raleigh (The Golden Vanity) in 1999 oh their Fellside album Scalene.

Brian Peters & Gordon Tyrrall sang The Green Willow Tree in 2000 on their CD The Moving Moon. In 2008, Brian Peters sang The Golden Vanity on his CD Songs of Trial and Triumph. In 2013 he and Jeff Davis sang The Green Willow Tree, a version collected by Cecil Sharp from Polly Patrick of Manchester, Clay Co., KY, on August 24, 1917, on their CD Sharp's Appalachian Harvest. Brian Peters commented in his second album's notes:

There are dozens of versions of The Golden Vanity, with predictable variations in the names of the two ships (in the North American set I recorded with Gordon Tyrrall, for instance, the Turkish Revelry is attacker and Green Willow Tree the victim of unprovoked aggression). This one was collected in1928 by James Madison Carpenter, whose search for ballads, shanties, mummers plays and what-have-you took him the length of Britain in his jalopy. In Cardiff docks he met a seaman, Richard Warner, who sang him this version of the ballad—I’ve not tampered with it, and particularly liked the line “Oh no you foolish youngster”, which may be unique to this version. I’m not sure what “dazzled out her lights” means, come to that.

Bill Whaley and Dave Fletcher sang an English version of The Golden Vanity and Martyn Wyndham-Read an Australian version on the Fellside album of English traditional songs and their Australian variants, Song Links.

John Roberts sang The Golden Vanity in 2004 at the 25th Annual Sea Music Festival at Mystic Seaport.

Emma Williamson sang The Golden Vanity in 2004 at “Folk on the Pier” which celebrated 200 years of Cromer's lifeboats. It was issued on their CD Someone Was Calling.

Bob Fox sang Golden Vanity in 2006 on his Topic CD The Blast.

Loudon Wainwright III sang Turkish Revelry in 2006 on Hal Willner's album of pirate ballads, sea songs and chanteys, Rogue's Gallery.

The Askew Sisters sang The Old Virginia Lowlands in 2007 on their WildGoose CD All in a Garden Green. They commented in their liner notes:

This version of The Golden Vanity is originally from Stan Hugill's great book Shanties from the Seven Seas where it's called the Five Gallon Jar. We first heard it from the singing of Brass Monkey. It is rumoured to have been based on a ballad from the seventeenth century about the conduct of Sir Walter Raleigh, who was less popular in his time than modern legend portrays.

Faustus sang The Green Willow Tree in 2008 on their eponymous Navigator CD, Faustus.

Lori Watson and Rule of Three sang Golden Vanity in 2009 on her CD Pleasure's Coin.

The Outside Track sang The Turkish Revery in 2010 on their CD Curious Things Given Wings. They commented in their liner notes:

We added this pirate song to “arrrh” repertoire after Norah [Rendell] learned it from guitarist and singer, Dáithí Sproule, who found it in his mother's Burl Ives LP.

Alasdair Roberts sang The Golden Vanity in 2010 on his CD Too Long in This Condition.

Sara Grey sang The Merry Willow Tree in 2013 on her CD Down in Old Dolores. She commented in her liner notes:

Also known as The Sweet Trinity, The Lowlands Low and The Golden Vanity. Recorded by John Quincy Wolf, Jr. and is in the John Quincy Wolf Folklore Collection, Lyon College, Batesville, Arkansas. This is one of my favourite versions from the singing of Almeda Riddle of Timbo, AR.

A broadside of 1682-85, in which Sir Walter Raleigh plays the ungrateful captain, seems to have been the ultimate ancestor of the abundant traditional copies of this ballad found in the British Isles and America. Sir Walter has dropped out entirely; the ship's name now appears variously as Golden Tree, Golden China Tree, Golden Willow Tree, Golden Erilee. Most traditional versions persist with the melancholy ending in which the cabin boy is cheated of his earned reward, but many American singers sentimentalise the conclusion, bestowing the captain's daughter, wealth and other honours on the hero.

Andy Turner learned The Golden Vanity from Everyman’s Book of British Ballads, edited by Roy Palmer. He sang Johnny Doughty's version of this song as the July 25, 2015 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week.

Matt Quinn learned The Golden Vanity from the singing of Johnny Doughty and recorded it for his 2017 CD The Brighton Line. He commented:

Mike Yates recorded this song in 1976 in Johnny's home. Versions of this song appear all over the world, sometimes called The Old Virginia Lowlands or The Sweet Trinity.

Lyrics

Tony Rose sings The Golden Vanitee

And there once was a captain who was boasting on the quay:
“Oh I have a ship and a gallant ship is she.
Of all the ships I know she is the best for me
And she's sailing in the lowlands low.”

Chorus (after each verse, repeating its last line):
In the lowlands, lowlands,
She's sailing in the lowlands low

“Well I had her built in the North Country
And I had her christened the Golden Vanitee.
I armed her and I manned her and I sent her off to sea
And she's sailing in the lowlands low.”

Oh well then up stepped a sailor who has just returned from sea:
“Oh I was aboard of the Golden Vanitee
When we was held in chase by a Spanish piratee
And we sank 'em in the lowlands low.”

Oh well, we had aboard us a little cabin boy
Who said, “What will you give me if the galley I destroy?”
“I'll give to you my daughter, she is my pride and joy,
If you sink them in the lowlands low.”

So the boy bared his breast and he plunged into the tide.
He swam until he came to the rascal pirate's side;
He climbed on board, he went below, by none was he espied,
And he sank 'em in the lowlands low.”

Oh well he bore her with his auger, he bore her once or twice,
And some was playing cards and some was playing dice.
But when he let the water in, it dazzled at their eyes
And he sank 'em in the lowlands low.”

Oh yes, some was playing cards and some was playing dice,
And some was in their hammocks a-sportin' with their wives.
But when he let the water in, it pulled out all their lives,
And he sank them in the lowlands low.

So then the cabin boy he swam unto the larboard side
Saying, “Captain, take me up for I am drowning in the tide.”
“I'll shoot you and I'll kill you if you claim my child as bride,
And I'll sink you in the lowlands low.”

So then the cabin boy he swam unto the starboard side
Saying, “Messmates, take me up for I am drifting with the tide.”
They took him up so quickly but when on deck, he died,
And they buried him in the lowlands low.

Oh yes, they took him up so quickly but when on deck, he died,
And they sewed him in his hammock that was so strong and wide.
They said a short prayer over him and dropped him in the tide
And they sailed from the lowlands low.

Well here's a curse onto the Captain wherever he may be
For taking that poor cabin boy so far away to sea;
For taking that poor cabin boy so far away to sea
And to leave him in the lowlands low.

Johnny Doughty sings The Golden Vanity

A fair ship is mine called the Golden Vanity
And she sails just now by the north country.
But I fear that she’ll be taken by a Spanish gallalee
As we sailed by the lowlands low.

Chorus (after each verse, repeating its last line):
By the lowlands low,
As we sailed by the lowlands low.

“What will you give to me?” asked the little cabin boy,
“If I venture to that Spanish ship, the ship that doth annoy?
I will wreck the gallalee, you may peace of mind enjoy
As we sail by the lowlands low.”

The Captain said, “Now with you my lad I’ll share
All my treasure and my wealth, you shall have my daughter fair,
If this Spanish ship you nobly sink and ease me of my care
As we sail by the lowlands low.”

Then boldly the lad did he leap into the sea
And an auger very sharp and thin he carried carefully.
And he swam the mighty billows ’til he reached the gallalee
Where she sank by the lowlands low.

Then back to the ship the little hero hied
And he begged the crew to haul him up upon the larboard side.
“You can sink for me, you little dog!” the ungrateful Captain cried
As we sail by the lowlands low.

Was there ever half a tale so sad
As this tale of the sea
Where we sailed by the lowlands low?

Martin Carthy and John Kirkpatrick sing The Old Virginia Lowlands

Once there was a skipper, he was boasting on the quay,
Saying: “I have a ship, and a gallant ship is she,
Oh I have a ship, and a gallant ship is she.
Of all the ships that I do know she's far the best to me.”

In the old Virginia Lowlands
Lowlands low
In the old Virginia Lowlands low

“Oh I had her built in the north country
And I had her christened the Golden Vanity,
Oh I had her christened the Golden Vanity,
I armed her and I manned her and I sent her off to sea.”

In the old Virginia Lowlands
Lowlands low
In the old Virginia Lowlands low

Then up spoke a sailor who had just returned from sea:
Oh I served on board of the Golden Vanity,
Oh I served on board of the Golden Vanity,
When she was held in chase by a Spanish piratee.”

In the old Virginia Lowlands
Lowlands low
In the old Virginia Lowlands low

“And we had on board of us a little cabin boy,
Who said: “ What will you give me if the galleon I destroy
Oh what will you give me if the galleon I destroy?”
“Oh you will get my daughter, she is my pride and joy.”

If you sink them in the Lowlands
Lowlands low
In the old Virginia Lowlands low

So the boy bared his breast and he plunged into the tide,
And he swam and he swam to the rascal pirate's side,
He swam and he swam to the rascal pirate's side,
And he climbed on deck and he went below and none did him espy.

And he sank them in the Lowlands
Lowlands low
In the old Virginia Lowlands low

He bore with his auger, he bore once and twice,
And some were playing cards and some were playing dice,
The water it flowed in and it dazzled their eyes,
The water it flowed in and it pulled out all their lives.

And he sank them in the Lowlands
Lowlands low
In the old Virginia Lowlands low

Well he swam and he swam all to the starboard side,
Saying: “Captain take me up, I am drifting with the tide,
Oh Captain take me up,” but so loud the Captain cried:
“I will shoot you, I will kill you, you shall not have your bride.”

I will sink you in the Lowlands
Lowlands low
In the old Virginia Lowlands low

The shipmates took him up and on the deck he died,
They sewed him in his hammock which was so strong and wide,
They sewed him in his hammock it was so strong and wide,
They prayed for him, they sang for him, they sunk him in the tide.

In the old Virginia Lowlands
Lowlands low
In the old Virginia Lowlands low

My curse be on you, Captain, wherever you may be,
My curse be on the captain of the Golden Vanity,
In waking and in sleeping, until your dying day,
For you gave your oath to him and you did him betray.

In the old Virginia Lowlands
Lowlands low
In the old Virginia Lowlands low

In the old Virginia Lowlands
Lowlands low
In the old Virginia Lowlands low

Jez Lowe sings The Golden Vanity Steeleye Span sing The Golden Vanity

It's I've got a ship in the north country,
Down in the Lowlands low,
And I fear she may be took by the Spanish enemy,
As she sails in the Lowland sea,
As she sails in the Lowland low.

I know a ship in the north country
Down in the Lowlands low,
And I fear she may be took by the Spanish enemy,
Down in the Lowland sea

And up then stepped a little cabin boy,
Down in the Lowlands low,
Saying: “What will you give me if I do them destroy
And sink them in the Lowland sea
And sink them in the Lowlands low?”

Up on the deck stepped a little cabin boy,
Down in the Lowlands low,
Saying: “What will you give me if I do them destroy
And sink them in the Lowland sea?”

“Oh, I'll give you silver and likewise gold,
Down in the Lowlands low,
And my only daughter for to be your bride,
If you'll sink them in the Lowland sea,
If you'll sink them in the Lowlands low.”

“Oh, I'll give you silver and I will give you gold,
Down in the Lowlands low,
And my only daughter for to be your bride,
If you sink them in the Lowland sea,
Sink them in the Lowlands low.”

Chorus:
Lowlands low,
Lowland sea

“Oh wrap me up in my black bear skin,
Down in the Lowlands low,
And heave me overboard for to sink or to swim,
And I'll sink them in the Lowland sea
I'll sink them in the Lowlands low.”

“Oh wrap me up in my black bear skin,
Down in the Lowlands low,
And throw me overboard for to sink or to swim,
Down in the Lowland sea.”

Now some were playing cards and others playing dice,
Down in the Lowlands low,
And the boy he had an auger, bored two holes at once,
And he sunk them in the Lowland sea,
And he sunk them in the Lowlands low.”

Now some were playing cards and others playing dice,
Down in the Lowlands low,
And the boy he had an auger and he bored two holes at once,
And he sunk them in the Lowland sea.

He leaned upon his breast and he swam back again,
Down in the Lowlands low,
Saying “Master, take me up, for I'm sure I will be slain,
And I've sunk them in the Lowland sea,
And I've sunk them in the Lowlands low.”

He leaned upon his breast and he swam back again,
Down in the Lowlands low,
Saying “Master, take me up, for I fear I will be slain,
And I sunk them in the Lowlands low,
I sunk them in the Lowland sea.”

Chorus

“Oh, I'll not take you up,” the master he cried,
Down in the Lowlands low,
“But I'll shoot you and I'll kill you and send you with the tide,
And I'll drown you in the Lowland sea,
And I'll drown you in the Lowlands low.”

“Oh, I'll not take you up,” the master he cried,
Down in the Lowlands low,
“But I'll shoot you and I'll kill you and I'll send you with the tide,
And I'll drown you in the Lowland sea”

He leaned upon his breast and swam round the larboard side,
Down in the Lowlands low,
“Oh messmates, take me up for I fear I will been slain,
And I've sunk her in the Lowland sea,
And I've sunk her in the Lowlands low.”

He leaned upon his breast and he swam to the larboard side,
Down in the Lowlands low,
Saying: “Messmates, take me up for I fear I have been slain,
And I sunk them in the Lowland sea”

His messmates took him up, and on the deck he died,
Down in the Lowlands low,
And they wrapped him up in an old cow's hide,
And they sunk him in the Lowland sea,
And sunk him in the Lowlands low.

They took him up, and on the deck he died,
Down in the Lowlands low,
And they wrapped him up in an old cow's hide,
And they sunk him in the Lowland sea,
They sunk him in the Lowlands low.

Chorus

Brian Peters sings The Golden Vanity

Now there was a bonny ship in the North country,
The name that she went under was the Golden Vanity.
I fear she will be taken by the Turkish privateer
As she sails along the lowlands low,
As she sails along the lowlands low.

Chorus (after each verse):
In the lowlands, in the lowlands,
As she sails along the lowlands low

Now the first that come on deck was the little cabin boy,
“Captain what’ll you give to me if I do them destroy?”
“I’ll give you gold and silver, my daughter for your bride
If you’ll sink them in the Lowlands low,
If you’ll sink them in the Lowlands low.”

So the captain held the keel light, and overboard he goes.
He swam ‘til he came to the Turkish privateer,
He’s let the water in and he’s dazzled out her lights
And he sank her in the lowands low,
And he sank her in the lowands low.

So it’s back to the ship so quickly he swam,
“Captain, captain, pick me up my work I’ve bravely done.
Captain, pick me up, for I’m sinking in the sea,
I’m sinking in the lowlands low,
And I’m sinking in the lowlands low.”

“Pick you up, pick you up?” the captain said he,
“Oh no, you foolish youngster, that will never be.
For I’m going to send you after the Turkish Ivory
And I’ll sink you in the lowlands low,
And I’ll sink you in the lowlands low.”

So he swam around the ship all to the starboard side,
“Shipmates, shipmate, pick me up, I’m sinking in the tide.
Shipmates, pick me up, for I’m sinking in the sea,
I’m sinking in the lowlands low,
And I’m sinking in the lowlands low.”

So his shipmates picked him up, and on the deck he died.
They sewed him in his hammock, which was both long and wide;
They sewed him in his hammock and they threw him o’er the side
And they sank him in the lowlands low,
And they sank him in the lowlands low.

Acknowledgements and Links

See also the Mudcat Café thread Golden Vanity Variants.

The words of Jez Lowe's and Steeleye Span's versions are from The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, eds Ralph Vaughan Williams & A.L. Lloyd, Penguin, 1959. The variations in the actual singing were transcribed by Reinhard Zierke with thanks for help to Garry Gillard.