Riding out a storm is high drama, even if you're on dry land. Check out, for example, Theodore Roethke's poem Big Wind, about his father's greenhouse when it encountered a winter storm. When sailors meet a storm at sea, even in these modern times, the poignancy of the mismatch between humans and the ocean creates an irresistible subject for plays, movies, novels, poems, and -- probably most commonly -- songs. From the Edmund Fitzgerald back through the Titanic through the adventures of Odysseus, shipwreck is about as dramatic as you can get. My favorite, from a poetic viewpoint, is Sir Patrick Spens, a Scottish ballad with the laconic closing verse:
Forty miles off Aberdeen
'Tis fifty fathom deep,
And there lies good Sir Patrick Spens
With the Scots lords at his feet.
Unfortunately, as far as I know, that ballad never made it to America, so we don't know what it might sound like without a Scots accent, but another old shipwreck ballad appears almost everywhere in the U.S. First collected in Glasgow in 1765, it's #289 in the Child's collection of English and Scottish Ballads, where it's titled The Mermaid, because before the storm hits, the sailors see one, and that's a bad omen. Worse yet, she taunts them:
The mermaid on the rock doth sit
With comb and glass in hand,
"Cheer up, cheer up, bold mariners,
You are not far from land."
The mermaid usually didn't emigrate to America along with the song: H. M. Belden, in Ballads and Songs Collected by the Missouri Folk-Lore Society (1955) lists twenty-two collected "recent" versions, from the Maritime Provinces through Wyoming and Texas. Sometimes the sailors spy a Pretty Fair Maid, but they don't identify her as a mermaid.
This version was sung by Ernest Stoneman and his Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers, and released as Victor 78 RPM #21648 (I don't know if it's been re-released; it should be on one of the Stoneman or Galax re-issues). The "landlord" is a puzzler, even in the old British versions, where they are landlubbers: "We poor sailor boys were all up aloft, and the land-lubbers lying down below." Well, good grief! someone has to reef the sails. But if you've been in a storm at sea, you know that those land-lubbers down below weren't asleep and dreaming.
Ernest was born near Galax, Virginia, and, with his wife Hattie and several other Galax singers, recorded about one hundred sides in the 1920s, most of them excellent. They moved to Maryland, near Washington DC, in 1931, where Ernest (later known as "Pop") got a regular job in a naval gun factory, and they raised thirteen children, forming what might be the world's record for the biggest family band. Legend has it that Pop ensured that all his children would learn music by putting the guitars, fiddles, and banjos under the bed when he left and forbidding the children to touch them while he was gone. During the 1940s and 1950s, Pop and Hattie and the thirteen children traveled around the Washington area on weekends, playing for dances and entertainments for other displaced mountain folk. In the late 1960s, some of the children formed their own bluegrass band, "The Stonemans," and brought Pop along on tour with them. At one point in each set, he'd strum his autoharp and sing some of his old songs, while the kids would look bored. Some of us in the audience, though, were waiting patiently for Pop's turn at the microphone. I guess the younger generation can never truly appreciate the older, or the young Stonemans would have transformed this song into a bluegrass piece. It moves along fast, the words are easy to remember, and hymn-like tenor and bass parts on the chorus are available for those with an ear for it. And the mermaid, who might disturb some fundamentalist Christians, has left the scene before the story starts.
"It's nine times around," said the captain of the ship,
"And it's nine times around," said he.
"Nine times around, are we sinking in the deep,
While the landlord lies dreaming down below."
Oh, the raging sea, how it roars,
And the cold chilly winds, how they blow,
And tonight us poor sailors are sinking in the deep,
While the landlord lies dreaming down below.
First on the deck was the captain of the ship,
And a fine looking fellow was he,
Saying, "I have a wife in Old Mexico,
And tonight she is looking for me."
Next on the deck was the lady of the ship,
And a fine looking lady was she,
Saying, "I have a husband in New Mexico,
And tonight he is looking for me."
Last on the deck was the sassy little cook,
And a sassy little cook was he.
He cared no more for his wife and his child
Than he did for the fish in the sea.
An extended history of the song, with notes on its evolution, can be found under item 71 in Cazden, Haufrecht, and Studer's Folk Songs of the Catskills. See also the entry in Belden listed above.
Return to the Remembering the Old Songs page.