Remembering The Old Songs:


by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, April 2006)

Last month, Lyle gave us a mining disaster song -- seemingly a very topical item. But as I write this a month later, at about the time you'll be reading his story, it has already been pushed off the front page by other disasters -- the Philippine mudslides, the Red Sea ferry wreck, and of course what looks like a religious war in Iraq. I haven't heard a West Virginia story in weeks.

So this month's story may be out-of-date by the time you read this. But I wonder. There are folksongs about mudslides, and about religious wars, but they are all either non-American or I don't know them. Shipwrecks, though, we have.

And even if the Egyptian disaster is off the front page (as it seems to be; I haven't heard about it lately, either), well, this is the quintessential disaster tune. The Ship That Never Returned, itself a hit in sheet music and recorded by old-time performers such as Vernon Dalhart and Bradley Kinkaid, spawned The Train That Never Returned, The Wreck of Old 97, The Rarden Wreck of 1893, The Airship That Never Returned, and more recently such spoofs as M.T.A. and Super Skier. If you want to do a disaster song, this tune is the obvious place to start.

The reason isn't hard to find. The piece was written by Henry Clay Work, of Grandfather's Clock and Marching Through Georgia fame, and it's typical of him: An absolutely smashing tune, with sorrowful but pretty banal lyrics. He wasn't good at making his people real. Witness the text printed by Sigmund Spaeth in Weep Some More, My Lady, which apparently is the original:

On a summer day, as the waves were rippling
By the soft and gentle breeze
Did a ship set sail with her cargo laden
For a port beyond the seas. Did she ever return?
No she never returned
And her fate was yet unlearned
Tho' for years and years there were fond ones waiting
For the ship that never returned.

Said a feeble lad to his anxious mother,
"I must cross the wide, wide sea,
For they say, perchance, in a foreign climate
There is health and strength for me!"
'Twas a gleam of hope in a maze of danger
And her heart for her youngest yearned;
Though she sent him forth with a smile and a blessing
On the ship that never returned.

"Only one more trip," said a gallant captain,
As he kissed his weeping wife.
"Only one more bag of the golden treasure,
And 'twill last us all through life.
Then we'll spend our days in a cozy cottage
And enjoy the rest I've earned."
But, alas, poor man, who sailed commander
On the ship that never returned.


If you want more verses, there are plenty out there; traditional versions show up in the collections of Brown, Henry, Randolph, and Sandburg. James F. Leisy has a verse beginning, "There were sad farewells, there were friends forsaken." Or you can just make up your own.

Odds are that the tune printed here is not exactly the one you've heard; this version is straight out of Spaeth (except that I transposed it down to a key more comfortable to people today). It's not that different from what you've likely heard; mostly, tradition has taken out some of Work's fancier trills. You can, of course, sing his lyrics to the modern tune. Which you surely know. At least, if you haven't heard Wreck of the Old 97, I don't know what you're doing reading this magazine.

And, of course, you can always write your own new set of words to the grand old tune. If the first two months of 2006 are any indication, we have a depressing number of opportunities to create a Great Generic Disaster-of-the-Week Song.

Return to the Remembering the Old Songs page.