Remembering The Old Songs:


by Lyle Lofgren

(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, January 2007)

This has to be among the most popular ballads of all time. Hundreds of variants have been collected, and almost any traditional singer can rattle one off. The basic story is always the same: a British ship is attacked by an enemy vessel. The cabin boy volunteers to sink it in return for gold and the captain's daughter. He swims off and sinks the enemy ship by somehow drilling a bunch of holes in it (2, 9, 20, 30, 33, 50, 60 or more), and returns. The denouement is variable: the captain leaves the boy behind, or else he's brought on board where he dies, presumably of hypothermia. He gets neither gold nor lady, but the ship sails on. The British ship usually has Golden in its name, such as: G. Vanity; G. Trinity; G. China Tree; G. Vallady; G. Willow Tree; or Merry G. Tree. The antagonist is French, Spanish, or Turkish. France and Spain were often fighting with England, but "Turkish" probably refers to a pirate ship rather than a battleship. The Lowland Sea is the Mediterranean (Latin for mid-land or inland), which once was rife with pirates. Most singers were unfamiliar with nautical terms: the enemy ship is a galilee, galihee, roveree, revillee, shivaree, castalee, or even a canoe.

Some time around 1682, Samuel Pepys (famous for keeping a diary) published a broadside titled, in part, Sir Walter Raleigh sailing in the Low-Lands; Shewing how the famous ship called The Sweet Trinity was taken by a false gally, and how it was again restored by the craft of a little sea-boy, who sunk the gally ..." In that version, Raleigh makes the usual promise, but reneges on the promised daughter, after which the boy says "goodbye," but we don't know whether he drowned or merely resigned his position. Perhaps that's why later generations of singers felt free to devise new endings.

I've been singing a modal version of this song for almost 50 years, during which time I dropped a lot of refrains and extra details. Still, I'd grown tired of it and stopped singing it, even on long car trips. I then heard Pop Wagner's major-key version (which he learned from the Red Clay Ramblers) and it cleansed my musical palate. I'm back to singing it while waiting for stop lights to change. My tune is similar to Pop's, except that it retains some modal heritage, and also has been modified to fit my lyrics. And since those words have shifted over the years, there are now hundreds of versions plus this one, which I think would make a pretty good pub song.


Complete Lyrics:
There was a little ship that sailed upon the sea,
And the name of the ship was The Golden Vanity,
As she sailed upon the lowland, on the lowland,
As she sailed upon the lowland sea.

They had not been sailing but two weeks or three
When they were overtaken by a Turkish Roveree,
As they sailed upon the lowland, on the lowland,
As they sailed upon the lowland sea.

Then up stepped our little cabin boy,
Saying, "What will you give me if I do them destroy?
If I sink them in the lowland (etc.)"

"I'll give to you," the captain then replied,
"Five thousand pounds and my daughter for your bride,
If you sink them in the lowland (etc.)"

He took off his shirt, and away swum he,
And he swum 'til he come to the Turkish Roveree,
As she sailed upon the lowland (etc.)

He had a little instrument fitted for the use,
And he bored nine holes in her hull all at once,
And he sunk her in the lowland (etc.)

"Oh captain, oh captain, take me on board,
And do onto me as good as your word,
For I sunk them in the lowland (etc.)"

"Oh, no, I'll not take you on board,
Nor do onto you as good as my word,
Though you sunk them in the lowland (etc.)"

"If it was not for the love I have for your men,
I'd do unto you what I did onto them,
I'd sink you in the lowland (etc.)"

He turned upon his back and down sunk he,
"Farewell, farewell to the Golden Vanity,
As she sails upon the lowland (etc.)"

[Information sources: The Traditional Ballad Index and an article by Lorne Brown in Canadian Folk Music Bulletin, V. 35, #2, p. 13 (2001)]

Return to the Remembering the Old Songs page.