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The Rainbow / As We Were A-Sailing

[ Roud 492 ; Laws N4 ; G/D 1:180 ; Ballad Index LN04 ; Bodleian Roud 492 ; Wiltshire Roud 492 ; trad.]

The Rainbow is from the Percy Grainger collection of Lincolnshire songs. Martin Carthy sang it on his 1969 album with Dave Swarbrick, Prince Heathen. A live recording of The Rainbow from the Sunflower Folk Club, Belfast, on October 20, 1978 was published in 2011 on his CD The January Man. Another live recording from 1979 at the Folk Festival Sidmouth was published in 2004, together with Skewbald recorded at the same gig.

Swan Arcade sang The Rainbow in 1976 on their LP Matchless.

Arthur Knevett sang As We Were Gone A-Sailing on his 1988 cassette Mostly Ballads. Vic Gammon commented in the album's notes:

Another sea battle song but in this one the captain's ‘damsel’ takes over the ship. This is no simple glorification of marine warfare for it has and edge of realism to it:

We scarcely had on man on board could fire off a gun
And the blood from our decks, me boys, like a river did run.

The great popularity of songs where females take on male roles has never really been adequately explained by historians or folklorists. This particular take is from the collection of Frank Kidson, a Yorkshireman who had his feet firmly planted on the ground when other collectors had their heads in the clouds.

The Rainbow is also on John Roberts & Tony Barrand's 1998 CD of English folksongs collected by Percy Grainger, Heartoutbursts. They commented in their liner notes:

Also known as The Female Captain or The Female Warrior, this tale of a heroic woman taking command of a beleaguered warship came to Grainger at Brigg in 1906, from George Orton of Barrow-on-Humber.


Martin Carthy sings The Rainbow

Oh as we were sailing down by the Spanish shore
Where the drums they did beat and the large cannons did roar
There we spied a lofty army go bearing over the main
Oh which causes us to hoist up our topmost sail again

Oh our captain says be ready oh he says my boys stand true
To face the Spanish army we lately did pursue
Oh to face the Spanish army lay long the ocean wide
And without our good protection boys we'll take the first broadside

There was broadside to broadside the vessels o'er they went
For sinking one another it was their full intent
And the very second broadside our captain he got slain
And a damsel jumped in his place to give command again

Oh they fought for nearly four hours for four hours or more
Till we had scarce a man on board our gallant ship to steer
Till we had scarce a man on board to fire off a gun
While the blood far o'er our decks like a river it did run

Oh for quarters for quarters the Spanish boys did cry
You've had the best of quarters the damsel did reply
You've had the best of quarters that e'er we can afford
You must fight sink or swim me boys or jump overboard

And so now the war is over and we'll take a glass of wine
You can drink to your true love and I will drink to mine
And here's a health unto that damsel who fought all on the main
Oh she has a royal gallant ship and The Rainbow's her name


Transcribed by Garry Gillard.

A version of this song is in the Digital Tradition database under the title As We Were A-Sailing. Thanks to Malcolm Douglas for drawing the page to my attention.