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The Mermaid (ballad)

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The Mermaid from The Book of British Ballads (1842)

The Mermaid is a ballad, catalogued as Child Ballad #289, Roud 124. Dating to around the mid-18th century, this song is known by a number of names, including Waves on the Sea,[1] The Stormy Winds[2] and The Wrecked Ship.[1]

The song belongs in the category of sea ballads, being a song sailors sung during their time off and not while they worked, but is more commonly thought of as a sea shanty.[3] It is well known in American folk tradition, and the text has appeared in many forms in both print and oral mediums.[4][5] The ballad remains part of American culture as a song sung at camps operated by the Boy Scouts of America as well as in public school music education classes.[6]


The ballad describes a ship that left port, its misadventure and eventual sinking. The moral of the song is that mermaids are a sign of an impending shipwreck.[1] It is sung from the point of view of a member of the ship's crew, although the ship sinks without any survivors. In most versions the ship is unnamed but in a version sung by Almeda Riddle, the mermaid disappears and the ship is identified as the Merrymac.[7] Often the ship is said to be departing on a Friday morning, but there are other versions of the lyrics including one that has it leaving on a Saturday night.[5][8] On the way out to sea, the captain sees a mermaid with a "comb and a glass in her hand".[8]

Three parallel stanzas most often follow describing how three of the crew members, contemplating impending disaster, would rather be somewhere else than on the ocean floor; for example, the cook would rather be with his pots and pans.[5] In English versions crew members often identify their home port and the people (parents, wives, children) who will mourn for them.[9]

The home of the crew members varies from version to version, but it has been assigned to almost every port town in Britain and the East Coast of the United States. At the end of the ballad the ship turns around three times and sinks with all hands; there are no survivors.[10]

Between each of the verses there oftentimes is a chorus describing the conditions sailors face in a storm and the state of the sea that was caused by the mermaid.


The philologist and fantasy author J. R. R. Tolkien wrote a song in Old English, to be sung to the tune of The Mermaid.[11]

First verse of one of J. R. R. Tolkien's Old English Songs for the Philologists
Ofer wídne gársecg Across the broad ocean (prose translation) The Mermaid

Þa ofer wídne gársecg wéow unwidre ceald,
Sum hagusteald on lagu féoll on nicera geweald.
He legde lást swa fýres gnást, he snúde on sunde fléah,
Oþþæt he métte meremenn déopan grunde néah.

When the cold blast was blowing across the broad ocean,
a young man fell into the sea, into the power of nixies.
As fast as fire he made his way, he swam along so quickly –
until he met the mermen near the deep sea-bottom.

Oh 'twas in the broad Atlantic, mid the equinoctial gales
That a young fellow fell overboard among the sharks and whales
And down he went as a streak of light, so quickly down went he
Until he came to a mermaid at the bottom of the deep blue sea.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Nelson-Burns
  2. ^ Atkinson 1998, p. 446
  3. ^ Atkinson 1998, p. 440
  4. ^ Niles 2000, p. 325
  5. ^ a b c Cazden, Haufrecht & Studer 1983, p. 262
  6. ^ Hilcourt 1961, p. 20
  7. ^ "The Merrymac at Sea". Max Hunter Folk Song Collection. Missouri State University. Retrieved 11 December 2018.
  8. ^ a b Niles 2000, p. 326
  9. ^ Roud & Bishop 2012, p. 33
  10. ^ Cazden, Haufrecht & Studer 1983, p. 263
  11. ^ Shippey, Tom (2005) [1982]. "Appendix B "Four 'Asterisk' Poems"". The Road to Middle-Earth (Third ed.). HarperCollins. pp. 399–408. ISBN 978-0261102750.

References and bibliography[edit]

  • Atkinson, David (1998). "The Child Ballads from England and Wales in the James Madison Carpenter Collection". Folk Music Journal. 7 (4).
  • Cazden, Norman; Haufrecht, Herbert; Studer, Norman (1983). Folk Songs of the Catskills. State University of New York Press. ISBN 0-87395-580-3.
  • Hilcourt, Bill (August 1961). "Green Bar Bill Says: Keep Your Feet Dry". Boys' Life. Boy Scouts of America.
  • Nelson-Burns, Lesley. "The Mermaid". Retrieved 8 August 2012.
  • Niles, John Jacob (2000). The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0813109876.
  • Roud, Steve; Bishop, Julia (2012). The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. London: Penguin Classic. ISBN 978-0141194615.

External links[edit]