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Captain Glen / William Glenn / Sir William Gower / The New York Trader

[ Roud 478 ; Master title: Captain Glen ; Laws K22 ; G/D 2:191 ; Ballad Index LK22 ; Bodleian Roud 478 ; Wiltshire 328 , 814 ; DT CAPTGLEN ; Mudcat 19424 , 128435 ; trad.]

This song is listed in A.L. Lloyd and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Penguin Book of English Folk Songs as The New York Trader.

Dave and Toni Arthur sang The Guilty Sea Captain in 1967 on their Transatlantic record Morning Stands on Tiptoe. They noted:

In ballads the theme of bad luck being attached to a ship through the presence of a criminal on board has been noted in Scandinavia, Russia and Great Britain. In some ballads, Brown Robyn’s Confession (Child 57) for example, after confessing his guilt, in this case incest, the criminal is thrown overboard, but saved from death by divine intervention. In others as in The Guilty Sea Captain he is just thrown overboard and the ship sails on in safety. A song with a similar set of words as those sung here, is the New York Trader (F.S.J. VII 2). This was printed at least three times by Catnach in London and by numerous other printers around the country.The version sung here is from Alfred Williams’ Folk Songs of the Upper Thames to the tune of the New York Trader.

Tony Rose sang this song as Sir William Gower in 1976 on his third album, On Banks of Green Willow. He noted:

It was a common superstition, possibly originating with the story of Jonah, that the presence of an evil-doer on board a ship might imperil both vessel and crew, unless the guilty party were sought out and thrown overboard. Such is the theme running through The Banks of Green Willow and Sir William Gower, both of which were collected by Cecil Sharp in Somerset.

Fairport Convention recorded Sir William Gower a few years earlier than Tony Rose for their LP Angel Delight. Their BBC session recording broadcast 27 March 1971 on “Folk on One” was included in the 4 CD box Live at the BBC.

Nic Jones recorded this ballad as William Glenn with somewhat different verses in 1978 for his album From the Devil to a Stranger. Another version was included in 2001 on his compilation CD Unearthed where it is called Captain Glenn. He also sang it in a BBC Radio 1 John Peel session recorded on 19 April 1977 and broadcast 26 April 1977.

John Wesley Harding also sang this ballad on his Nic Jones tribute album, Trad Arr Jones.

Graham Moore sang William Glenn on his 1995 album Tom Paine’s Bones.

John Doyle sang Captain Glenn on his 2005 CD Wayward Son. He noted:

Nic Jones recorded this on an early out of print record called From the Devil to a Stranger. Many thanks to the Rusby family and to Ken Cope each for getting a copy to me.

Bryony Griffith sang William Gower in 2011 on her and Will Hampson’s CD Lady Diamond. They learned it “from the singing of Tony Rose and Cecil Sharp’s collection of English Folk Songs.” and coupled it with the tune The Tankard of Ale “from the manuscript of Joshua Jackson, North cornmiller and musician, by Bowen & Shepherd for Yorkshire Dales Workshops.”

Tarras sang New York Trader in 2011 on their CD Warn the Waters.

Eliza Carthy sang New York Trader in 2012 on The Imagined Village’s album Bending the Dark and in 2024 on her album No Wasted Joy. She noted:

This song, which I first recorded for The Imagined Village on our album Bending the Dark, is an example of a morality tale with a hefty warning to not be a baddie. It would seem common sense to not want a murderer on a small wooden ship with you hundreds of miles from anywhere in the middle of the sea; turns out our ancestors felt the same. I love Neptune rising to warn the villainous Captain that he is about to “play” with the Lord of the ocean…we all know who wins).

False Lights sang William Glenn on their 2018 CD Harmonograph. They noted:

Learned from Nic Jones’ version on From the Devil to a Stranger, with some extra lines based on Tony Rose’s recording under the name Sir William Gower. It was a common superstition that an evil-doer onboard could endanger the whole crew, and the best solution was to find the guilty party and throw them overboard to calm the storms they had caused.

Lankum sang The New York Trader in 2023 on their Rough Trade album False Lankum. They noted:

We learned The New York Trader, like so many other great songs, from Ringsend native and all round legend Luke Cheevers. It is one of a group of songs (sometimes referred to as the ‘Jonah Ballads’), which describe a criminal on board a ship being detected by supernatural means. It was believed that their presence would bring bad luck to the vessel and that the only way to escape this fate was to throw them overboard. The words to the song may be based on an older ballad called The Pirate in which the destination was New Barbary rather than ‘Amerikay’. It was printed on broadsides in the UK where it was quite popular in the 19th century, and versions were subsequently collected in Wiltshire, Norfolk and Nova Scotia in the 20th century.

Shoon sang New York Trader on their eponymous 2024 EP Shoon.

Allister Thompson sang The New York Trader on his 2024 album Ancestors.


Tony Rose sings Sir William Gower

A bold young seaman, stout and strong,
To a lofty vessel I do belong:
Well rigged, well manned, well fit for sea,
Bound for New York in Amerikey.

Our captain’s name was William Gower
And his crew in the number were just four score.
All seamen bold for to sail the sea
Bound for New York in Amerikey.

Our captain in his cabin lay
When an awful voice to him did say:
"Prepare yourself and your company
Tomorrow night in the deep to lie."

Our captain woke in an awful fright
It being in the first part all of the night,
And to his bosun aloud did call
To him revealed his secret all.

"Oh, it’s bosun, bosun, let no-one know
What we poor sailors do undergo,
But keep the secret within your breast
And pray to God now to give you rest."

"I killed my master, a merchant there,
And ’twas all for the sake of his lady dear;
I killed my wife and my children three
And ’twas all for the sake of jealousy."

"Oh, it’s on my servant I laid the blame,
He was hung and quartered all for the same.
And it is his ghost I am much afraid,
This very night has my heart betrayed."

Early next morning the storm did rise
Which our poor sailors did much surprise,
And the sea washed o’er us, both fore and aft
Till scarce one man on deck was left.

At this our bosun he did declare
Our captain he was some murderer.
Which so enraged the whole ship’s crew
They overboard then the captain threw.

When this was done, oh, a calm was there
And our good ship homeward did steer.
Oh the wind abated and calmed the sea,
And we sailed safe to Amerikey.

Nic Jones sings William Glenn

Oh it’s of a ship and a ship of fame
Launched off the stocks, bound to sail the main;
With one hundred and fifty brisk young men
Well picked and chosen every one
And William Glenn was the captain’s name.
He was a fine and a tall young man
As fine a sailor as sailed the sea;
And we were sailing to New Barbary.

On the first of April, then we set sail,
Blessed with a fine and a prosperous gale.
And we were bound for New Barbary
With all of our whole ship’s company.
We hadn’t been sailing a league or two
Till all of our whole ship’s jovial crew,
They all fell sick but sixty-three
As we were sailing to New Barbary.

One night the Captain then he did dream,
A voice came to him and said to him:
“Prepare yourself and your company
For tomorrow night you must lie with me.”
This woke the captain in a terrible fright,
It being the third watch of the night.
And aloud for the bosun then he did call
And to him told his secrets all.

“Bosun,” he said, “it grieves my heart
To think I’ve played a villain’s part:
A man I slew in Staffordshire
And all for the sake of his lady fair.
And of the ghost of that I am afraid
That has in me such terror bred.
So keep the secret within your breast
And pray to the lord that he gives you rest.”

We hadn’t been a sailing a league but three
Till raging grew the roaring sea.
There rose a tempest up in the skies
Which did our seamen much surprise
And the main mast sprung by the break of day
Which made our rigging all but to give way;
And did our seamen much affright
The terrors of that awful night.

And then the bosun he did declare
That the captain was a murderer.
This so enraged the whole ship’s crew
That overboard our captain threw.
Our treacherous captain he being gone
Immediately there came a calm
And the winds abated and so did the sea
And we went sailing to New Barbary.

And when we came to the Spanish Shore
Our good little ship for to repair,
The people there were amazed to see
Our dismal case and such misery.
Now seamen all wherever you may be
I pray you take a warning from me:
As you love life won’t you have care
And never go sailing with a murderer.

Bryony Griffith sings William Gower

A bold sea captain named William Gower
And his loyal crew of just four score.
All seamen brave for to sail with he
Bound for New York far across the sea.

This captain in his cabin lay
When a dreadful voice unto him did say:
"Prepare thyself and thy ship’s company
For tomorrow in deepest waters may be."

The captain woke in a shivering fright
And it being the third part all of the night,
Unto the bosun he loudly cried
And shared the secret of how they might die.

Saying, "Bosun, bosun, let no-one know
What our poor ship might undergo,
Pray keep the secret close to thy chest
And pray to the Gods that they give us rest."

"For, I killed my neighbour back on the land,
All for the sake of a lady’s hand;
Then I killed my wife and my children three
All for the sake of damn jealousy."

"And on a poor young sailor I laid the blame,
He was drawn and quartered all for the same.
Now it is his ghost I am afraid
Has come this night my poor life to take."

Then the sea burst over both fore and aft
Till hardly any crew were left,
Then the bosun cried, “I do declare,
It’s the captain’s fault, he’s a murderer!”

This news, this news did enrage the crew
And overboard their bold captain threw,
Then the wind it ceased end the sea was calm,
Bound for New York they sailed free from harm.

Acknowledgements and Links

Thanks to Garry Gillard for transcribing the lyrics from Tony Rose’s singing.

Nic Jones’ lyrics were copied from the Digital Tradition.