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The Rainbow / As We Were A-Sailing / A Broadside

[ Roud 492 ; Laws N4 ; G/D 1:180 ; Ballad Index LN04 ; Bodleian Roud 492 ; Wiltshire 767 ; trad.]

Louis Killen sang As We Were A-Sailing on his 1965 Topic album Ballads and Broadsides. This track was also included in 1998 on the Topic anthology of traditional songs of sailors, ships and the sea, Round Cape Horn. Angela Carter commented in the original album's sleeve notes:

Other versions of this stirring sea battle song fill in the details. The dauntless heroine was able to take command so opportunely when the captain was killed in battle because she had dressed up as a man to follow her true love to sea, and as one Canadian variant has it:

She served for twelve long months all with her jolly tars
Till at length she had learned the arts of man o’ war.

Although they are related to the Amazons of classical legend, those ferocious ladies who amputated a breast the better to draw a bow, the warlike young women so familiar in folk song and folklore were by no means non-existent in real life. John Ashton, in Modern Street Ballads, London 1888, quotes an instance from no less veracious a source than The Times for November 4, 1799. It seems that a certain Miss Talbot followed her lover as a seaman but joined the army in a fit of pique after she quarrelled with him. “But her love of the sea was unconquerable and she joined the Navy, being present on board Earl St. Vincent’s ship of February 14, and again was under fire at Camperdown.” Frank Kidson collected this fine version in Yorkshire and printed it in his Traditional Tunes. Oxford 1891. Kidson thought the girl’s ship was called The Rainbow due to some relationship between this song and the ballad about the Elizabethan pirate, Captain Ward, called A Famous Sea Fight between Captain Ward and the Rainbow. Percy Grainger found similar sets in Lincolnshire; the song has often been found in the British tradition in differing forms.

Bob Scarce sang A Broadside at The Ship Inn, Blaxhall, in ca. 1971. This recording by Keith Summers was included in 2007 on the Musical Traditions anthology of Summers' Suffolk recordings from the 1970s, A Story to Tell. Rod Stradling commented in the album's booklet:

The young girl who disguises herself as a man in order to follow her sweetheart to sea is a popular theme in folksong. This example, collected in England, Scotland, USA and Canada, though not very common on broadsides, is generically known as The Female Warrior. It's also sometimes called The Rainbow, for its last verse, just to confuse it with Captain Ward! Harris of Birmingham printed a broadside on this theme but, inexplicably, omitted the usual introductory verses. The result was our present song—copied by later printers—and the girl's sudden and unexplained appearance has confused numerous listeners.

Both Bob Hart and Cyril Poacher learned it from Bob Scarce, but the Poacher and Hart versions [see below] have diverged noticeably in a generation.

In her book Warrior Women and Popular Balladry 1650-1850, Cambridge UP, 1989, Dianne Dugaw claims that the female warrior was a popular subject in balladry in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. She has identified more than 100 ballads on the subject.

Bob Hart sang A Broadside in his home in Snape, Suffolk, to Tony Engle in July 1972. This recording was released in the following year on his Topic album Songs from Suffolk. An earlier recording made by Bill Leader in 1969 was included in 1998 as the title track of his Musical Traditions anthology A Broadside.

Cyril Poacher sang A Broadside at home in Grove Farm, Blaxhall, Suffolk, to Tony Engle and Keith Summers in August or September 1974. This recording was included in the following year on his Topic album of traditional songs from Suffolk, The Broomfield Wager, and in 1998 on the Topic anthology My Ship Shall Sail the Ocean (The Voice of the People Volume 2). A slightly later home recording made by Ginette Dunn on October 3, 1974 was included in 1999 on Poacher's Musical Tradition anthology Plenty of Thyme. Rod Stradling's notes in the accompanying booklet are essentially the same as in that of Bob Hart's anthology.

Martin Carthy sang The Rainbow 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 released in 2011 on his CD The January Man. Another live recording from 1979 at the Folk Festival Sidmouth was issued in 2004, together with Skewbald recorded at the same gig.

John Faulkner sang As We Were A-Sailing as the title track of The Critics Group's 1971 Argo album As We Were A-Sailing.

Johnny Collins and Friends sang As Our Ship Was Sailing in 1973 on their Traditional Sound Recordings album The Traveller's Rest.

Swan Arcade sang The Rainbow on their 1976 LP Matchless.

Arthur Knevett sang As We Were Gone A-Sailing on his 1988 cassette Mostly Ballads. Vic Gammon commented:

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.

John Roberts & Tony Barrand sang The Rainbow in 1998 on their CD of English folksongs collected by Percy Grainger, Heartoutbursts. They noted:

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.

Debra Cowan learned The Rainbow from the singing of Swan Arcade and recorded in for her 2009 CD Fond Desire Farewell. She noted:

Collected from George Orton of Barrow-on-Humber by Percy Grainger, this is a wonderful song about how a woman takes charge and wins the day. A large nod to the trio Swan Arcade—Jim Boyes, the late Dave Brady and Heather Brady—for providing the inspiration that gave us this version.

The Dovetail Trio sang A Broadside on their 2019 CD Bold Champions.

Lyrics

Bob Scarce sings A Broadside

As we sailed out one morning along the Spanish shore.
Where the drums they did beat and the cannon they did roar.
We spied aloft the Admiral come ploughing on the main
And which caused us to hoist up our topsail again.

“Come come my lads get ready, come come my lads be true.
To face this French Admiral that's all that we can do.
If he should overtake us, all on the ocean wide.
We will nearly draw up to him and give him a broadside.”

Now a broadside, a broadside, and at it we went
For killing one another that was their full intent.
The very second broadside our Admiral he got slain
And a young damsel stepped up in his place to remain.

“Four quarters, four quarters!” This damsel replied,
“We'll give you the best of quarters that ever we can afford.
And we'll offer you the finest quarters that ever we can afford.
You must fight, sink or swim my boys or else jump overboard.”

Now we fought there four hours, four hours severe
We fought till there was not a man he could stand on board.
We fought till not a man on board could fire off a gun
And the blood from our quarterdecks like water did run.

And now we are gained a victory we'll take a glass of wine
You drink luck to your true love and I'll drink luck to mine.
But there's good luck to the damsel who's fought with us on the main
To our good ship The Royal called Rainbow by name.

Bob Hart sings A Broadside

A story, a story, I'm just a-going to tell:
It's of a young maiden, in London she did dwell.
And before I conclude, well, you shall quickly hear
How she ventured her life for the one she loved so dear.

So come all ye young fellows be galliant and true,
And let us our enemies quickerly pursue.
And when we overtake them all on the ocean wide,
We will nearly draw up with them, we'll give them a broadside.

A broadside, a broadside, and at it we went;
For killing one another it was our full intent.
The very first broadside our captain he was slain,
And the young damsel rose up in his place to remain.

For long hours we fought in a battles so rare.
'Til we scarce had a man who our ship could steer.
We scarce had a man that could fire off a gun
And the blood from our quarter-deck like water did run.

“For quarter, for quarter,” the Frenchman he did cry.
“You'll get the finest quarter,” the maiden did reply.
“You'll get the finest quarter that ever I can afford,
It's to kill, or be killed, me lads, or else jump overboard.”

And now we've gained the victory we'll take a glass of wine.
You drink luck to your truelove and I'll drink luck to mine.
And here's to the maiden that gal of greatest fame,
And our good ship The Royal Lad in battle made its name.

Cyril Poacher sings A Broadside

As we sailed out one morning along the Spanish shore,
Our wars drums they did beat and our cannons loud did roar,
We spied a lofty French ship come bearing on the main,
Which caused us to hoist up our topsail once again.

“Come, come, my lads get ready. Come, come, my lads be true.
To face this French admiral is all that we can do.
If he should overtake us along the ocean wide,
We shall nearly draw up to him and give him a broadside.”

Now a broadside, a broadside, and at it we went.
For killing one another, that was our full intent.
The very first broadside, our admiral he was slain,
And a young damsel rose in his place to remain.

Now we fought them four hours, four hours severe.
We fought 'til there was not a man he could stand on board.
We fought 'til not a man on board could fire of his gun,
And the blood from our quarterdeck like water did run.

“For quarters, for quarters”, the Frenchmen did cry.
“You'll get the finest quarters,” this maiden did reply,
“You'll get the finest quarters that ever we can afford,
You must fight, sink or swim, my boys, or else jump overboard.”

And now we've gained our victory, we'll take a glass of wine.
You drink love to your true love and I'll drink love to mine.
But here's to the damsel who spotted us on the main,
And the good ship the Royal, called Rainbow by name.

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.

Debra Cowan sings The Rainbow

As we were a-sailing down by the Spanish shore
Where the drums they did beat and loud the cannons roared
We spied a lofty army, come bearing down the main
And it caused us to hoist our topmost sails again.

Now there was a gallant damsel, a damsel of great fame,
She was the Captain's daughter and Nancy was her name.
She stood upon the deck me boys and loudly she did call,
“0 hoist up the colours and load the cannonballs!”

“Now”, our captain said, “Be ready, boys, be ready and stand true
To face the Spanish army we lately did pursue.
For to face the Spanish army lay along the ocean wide
And without a good protection, boys, we’ll take the first broadside.”

Well, it’s broadside to broadside these vessels o'er they went,
A-sinking one another, it was their full intent.
And at the very second broadside, our captain he was slain
And the damsel jumped in his place to fetch command again.

0, we fought for nearly four hours, for four hours or more
'Til we had scarce a man on board our gallant ship to steer.
'Til we had scarce a man on board to fire off a gun
And the blood on our decks like a river it did run.

“0 for quarters, for quarters!” these Spanish lads did cry. “You have had the best of quarters,” this damsel did reply, “You have had the best of quarters that e'er we can afford, You must fight, sink, or swim, me boys, or jump overboard.”

And 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.
Here’s a health unto that damsel, that damsel of great fame,
And a health unto that royal ship, the Rainbow was her name.

Acknowledgements

Transcribed by Garry Gillard from the singing of Martin Carthy.

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.