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The Mermaid / The Sailor’s Song / Our Gallant Ship

[ Roud 124 ; Master title: The Mermaid ; Child 289 ; G/D 1:27 ; Ballad Index C289 ; RagingSea at Old Songs ; VWML CJS2/9/1944 ; Bodleian Roud 124 ; Wiltshire 710 ; DT MERMDFRI , MERMAID5 ; Mudcat 19422 ; trad.]

Ernest V. Stoneman and the Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers sang Raging Sea, How It Roars in a Victor Record Company recording in Atlanta, Georgia, on 22 February 1928. It was included in 1978 on the Blue Ridge Institute album in their Virginia Traditions series, Ballads From British Tradition.

Paul Clayton sang The Mermaid in 1956 on his Tradition album Whaling and Sailing Songs From the Days of Moby Dick. He noted:

This is one of the oldest of the sea-songs still popular today. Melville knew it and quoted the last stanza in his novel White-Jacket. Of the linking of mermaids and evil events, Francis J. Child wrote: “If nothing worse, mermaids at least bode rough weather, and sailors do not like to see them … They have a reputation for treachery.”

Jeannie Robertson sang Three Times ’Round Went Oor Gallant Ship as part of a medley of Aberdeen street games and songs in 1960 on her Prestige album Scottish Ballads and Folk Songs.

William Howell of Fishguard, Pembrokeshire, sang Our Gallant Ship on the anthology Sailormen and Servingmaids (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 6; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1970).

Bob Hart sang The Mermaid at home in Snape, Suffolk, on 8 July 1969 to Rod and Danny Stradling. This recording was included in 1998 on his Musical Traditions anthology A Broadside. Rod Stradling commented in the accompanying booklet:

Professor Child called this The Mermaid because, in most versions, the sailors sight a mermaid, a sign of bad-luck, before their ship is wrecked. It was published in a Newcastle Garland, dated 1765, as The Seamen’s Distress, although later broadside printers often called it The Sailor’s Caution. In America the song was often treated comically in 19th century college glee books and it may be that sometimes the American folk versions are serious reinterpretations of these one-time comic versions!

Almeda Riddle from Heber Springs, Arkansas, sang The Nerrimac at Sea in 1972 on her Rounder album Ballads and Hymns From the Ozarks.

The Clancy Brothers with Louis Killen sang The Mermaid in 1973 on their Vanguard album Greatest Hits.

Johnny Doughty sang The Mermaid to Mike Yates at home in Brighton, Sussex, in Summer 1976. This recording was released a year later on Doughty’s Topic album of traditional songs from the Sussex coast, Round Rye Bay for More. Mike Yates commented in the sleeve notes:

There is an old belief among sailors that the sighting of a mermaid is an omen of impending doom. However, our present song has not been traced prior to the mid-18th century when it was printed as The Seamen’s Distress in The Glasgow Lasses Garland, a Newcastle chapbook of c. 1765. In North America the song appeared on at least three commercial 78 rpm records during the 1920s and 30s. The Carter Family sang it for Bluebird as Waves on the Sea whilst Ernest Stoneman recorded it as The Sailor’s Song and, with his Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers, as The Raging Sea, How it Roars (Victor), a version now reissued by Rounder Record.

Jolly Jack sang this as The Sailor’s Song in 1983 on their Fellside album Rolling Down to Old Maui.

Finest Kind sang The Mermaid on their 1999 album Heart’s Delight. They noted:

This haunting ballad is Child #289. The version we sing was collected in England in 1906, but the ballad was a popular broadside for at least 150 years before that. We like its sombreness, in particular the repetitive, knell-like introduction of each crew member who “steps up” to lament his approaching doom.

Mary Humphreys and Anahata sang The Mermaid in 2003 on their WildGoose album Sharp Practice. They noted:

Cecil Sharp collected the song from Sister Emma of Clewer, Berkshire, on 27 February 1909 [VWML CJS2/9/1944] . We love the way that the typical ending of the ballad (where the ship turns around three times and sinks to the bottom of the sea) is completely changed and everyone goes home happy ever after. Especially after the little homily by the ‘good little boy’ about the ‘One who rules the waves’.

Sister Emma was an Anglican nun of the Community of St John in Clewer, near Windsor. She felt so strongly about the neglected children in her community that she—against considerable opposition—set up a home for abandoned boys in Clewer, called St Augustine’s Home (they were nicknamed the ‘disgusting boys’ after that) and ensured they had a decent upbringing and were set to a respectable trade when they were old enough.

She had a great rapport with the children in her care, according to the accounts of the time. Perhaps she used to sing to them in the evening. Among the songs that Cecil Sharp collected from Sister Emma are many nonsense and nursery rhymes and stories. Others are bloody, gory ballads such as Long Lankin that children love to be frightened by.

Martin Carthy sang Mermaid in 2006 on his and Dave Swarbrick’s album Straws in the Wind. He commented in the sleeve notes:

When I was a child, Mermaid was a song which we all sang a lot. That we didn’t know all the words didn’t matter. When in the summer of 1961 I met The Charles River Valley Boys all from Harvard University and they sang an Old Timey version of the song with the memorable line in the chorus “…The landlord lies sleeping down below…”, joy was unconfined. However the version sitting in the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs learned by E.T. Sweeting from a James Herridge in Twyford in 1906 is an altogether different kettle of fish from these jolly romps and makes for a much darker journey. Given that, as A.L. Lloyd says, the sight of a mermaid was the worst of omens, you would think that it would be an invitation to all sorts of songs but it’s not so: this one song in its various forms and (possibly) the children’s song The Big Ship Sails on the Alley-O seems to be it.

Martin Carthy recorded Mermaid for a second time in 2006 with Waterson:Carthy and with somewhat different verses for the double CD Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys, and Eliza Carthy sang it on 2010 on the Imagined Village CD Empire and Love,

Pete Coe sang Mermaid in 2004 on his CD In Paper Houses. He noted:

This grandiose minor tune came from a Dorset church organist and I selected verses which concentrated on the role of the mermaid. Stan Hugill told me that, in the days of sail, if a sailor saw a mermaid it could be a sign of good luck, or bad luck… I hope that makes things clear, then.

Paul and Liz Davenport sang The Mermaid in 2008 on their Hallamshire Traditions CD Songbooks.

Brian Peters sang The Sailor’s Song in 2008 on his CD of Child ballads, Songs of Trial and Triumph. He noted:

What I sing here is mostly what Dan Tate of Fancy Gap, Carroll County, Virginia, sang to Mike Yates on 14 August 1979. Mr Tate was a banjo player and singer, born in 1896, who Mike Yates met on the first of his Appalachian collecting trips. You can find out more about the music he recorded [on the Musical Traditions anthology Far in the Mountains].

I have to admit that the ballad has “evolved” unconsciously in my hands since I learned it from the Dan Tate recording, in that the characters should be introduced in turn as “the next on deck…”” etc., whereas in singing “the next to come in” I seem to have got muddled up with an English mummers’ calling-on song. Be warned not to learn it my way! More deliberately, I amended the second verse (which in the Tate version has the lady making an identical speech to the captain’s) in line with the wonderfully-spirited version recorded by Ernest Stoneman from Galax (just up the road from Fancy Gap) with his family band. My arrangement is a more conventional old-time / bluegrass effort than the Stoneman recording.

Marilyn Tucker and Paul Wilson sang The Mermaid on their 2009 Wren Trust album of songs of sea and shore, On the Tide. They noted:

Devised for the Sticklepath Bonfire Show in 1988, this song starts to investigate the myth surrounding the mermaid, and perhaps it’s no surprise to find that it’s a case of “the victim gets the blame”

Vic Shepherd and John Bowden with Linda Lee Welch sang The Merrimac at Sea in 2015 on their Hallamshire Traditions CD Still Waters. They noted:

This song comes from the superb Arkansas singer Almeda ‘Granny’ Riddle. Recorded by John Quincy Wolf in 1952 and by Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins in 1959, she became an important figure in the North American folk revival and performed at many festivals for more than 20 years, frequently sharing a stage with younger musicians such as Mike Seeger, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. In an interview in 1970 Granny Riddle claimed to know ‘somewhere between five and seven hundred’ ballads.

Despite its title the song has nothing to do with the frigate Merrimack which, rebuilt as the famous Civil War ironclad CSS Virginia fought with the USS Monitor at the first engagement between ironclad warships at the Battle of Hampton Roads in 1862, but is instead a jolly version of The Mermaid (Child 289) which those of us of more advanced years can remember learning in school from Singing Together.


Bob Hart sings The Mermaid

It was February the 13th that we set sail
And our ship not so very far from land,
Well, whom should I spy but a fair pretty maid,
With a glass and a comb in her hand.

Chorus (repeated after each verse):
And the ragin’ seas did roar,
And the stormy winds did blow,
And we jolly sailor lads were up, were up aloft,
And the landlubbers lyin’ down below, below, below,
And the landlubbers lyin’ down below.

Then up spoke a man of our gallant ship,
And a well-spoken man was he.
“I have married a wife in fair London Town,
And tonight she a widow will be.”

Then up spoke the boy of our gallant ship,
And a well-spoken boy was he.
“I’ve a father and mother in fair London Town
And tonight, they will weep for me.”

“They will look, they will weep witha watery eye,
They will look, they will weep for me.
They will look, they will weep with a watery eye,
They will look to the bottom of the sea.”

Then three time round went our gallant ship
And three time round went she,
Three time round went our gallant ship
And she sank to the bottom of the sea.

Johnny Doughty sings The Mermaid

One Friday morn when we set sail.
And our ship was nigh on the land,.
We there did espy a fair mermaid.
With a comb and glass in her hand.

Chorus (repeated after each verse):
While the raging seas did roar
And the stormy winds they did blow,
And we jolly sailor boys was up, up aloft
And the landlubbers lying down below, below, below,
And the landlubbers lying down below.

Then up spake the captain of our gallant ship
And a good old skipper was he:
“I have married a wife in fair London Town,
But this night she shall weep for me, for me, for me,
And this night she shall weep for me.”

Then up spake the cabin boy of our gallant ship
And a fair-haired boy was he:
“I’ve a father, and a mother in fair Portsmouth Town,
But tonight they shall weep for me, for me, for me,
But this night they shall weep for me.”

The three times around went our gallant, gallant ship
And three times round went she.
Then three times around went our gallant, gallant ship
And she sank to the bottom of the sea, the sea, the sea,
And she sank to the bottom of the sea.

Martin Carthy sings Mermaid on Straws in the Wind

One night as I lay on my bed,
I lay so fast asleep,
When the thought of my true love come running in my head,
And sailors that sail on the deep.

As I sailed out one day one day
And being not far from land,
There I saw a mermaid sat on a rock,
A comb and a glass in her hand.

Now the song she sang, she sang so sweet,
No answer at all could I say,
Till our gallant ship she swung round about,
Which made our poor hearts to ache.

Then up stepped the helmsman of our ship,
In his hand a lead and line.
For to sound the seas so wide and so deep,
No hard rock or sand could he find.

Up stepped the captain of our ship,
And a well-speaking man is he.
He says, “I have a wife in fair Plymouth town,
This night and a widow she’ll be.”

Up stepped the bosun of our ship,
And a well-spoken man was he.
He says, “I have two sons in fair Bristol town,
And orphans I fear they will be.”

And then up stepped our cabin boy,
And a fine pretty boy was he.
He says, “Oh, I grieve for my mother dear,
Whom I shall never more see.

“Last night last night when the moon shone bright,
My mother she had sons five.
But now she may look in the salt salt sea
And find but one alive.”

Call for boats, call for boats, my fair Plymouth boys,
Do you hear how the trumpets sound?
For the want of a long-boat in the ocean we’re lost
And most of our merry men drowned.

Martin Carthy sings Mermaid on Rogue’s Gallery

As we lay musing on our bed,
So early morn at ease,
We thought upon those lodging beds
Poor sailors have at sea.
Though last Easter day in the morning fair,
We was not far from land,
We spied a mermaid sitting on a rock
With a comb and a glass in her hand, in her hand,
With a comb and a glass in her hand.

And first come the bosun of our ship
With courage, stout and bold:
“Stand fast, stand fast, brave lively lads,
Stand fast, brave hearts of gold.
For our gallant ship, she’s gone to wreck,
She was so lately trimmed,
The raging seas have sprung her good,
And the salt seas all run in, run in,
And the salt seas all run in.”

And up then spoke our cabin boy,
Oh, a well spoke boy was he:
“I’m sorry for my mother dear,
I’m lost in the salt, salt sea.
For last night, last night, the moon shone bright,
And you know that she had sons five,
Tonight she may look in the salt, salt waves
And find but one alive, alive,
And find but one alive.”

For boats, for boats, you fair Plymouth girls,
Don’t you hear how the trumpet sound?
For the want of a boat our good ship is lost
And the most of the young men drowned, oh drowned,
And the most of the young men drowned.

Brian Peters sings The Sailor’s Song

Oh, the first to come in was the Captain of the ship,
Fine young Captain was he.
He formed a song, “We’ve all done wrong,
As we sailed on the lonesome sea.”

The next to come in was the lady of the ship,
Fine young lady was she.
Says, “I’ve got a husband down in New Mexico
And tonight he is looking for me.”

Well, the next to come in was the doctor of the ship,
A fine young doctor was he.
He told his patients on their beds so low,
They would sink to the bottom of the sea.

The next to come in was the drunkard of the ship,
A wicked old cuss was he.
He said he didn’t give a damn if the boat would never land,
Let her sink to the bottom of the sea.

Stormy winds let them blow,
Raging seas let them roar.
While these poor sailors all a-running up the ropes
And the landlord a-crying out below.

Acknowledgements and Links

Lyrics taken from the The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, ed. Ralph Vaughan Williams and A.L. Lloyd, Penguin, 1959:70, and adapted to the actual singing of Martin Carthy by Garry Gillard.

See also Stephen Winick’s article The Mermaid: the Fascinating Tail Behind an Ancient Ballad.