The Mermaid (ballad)
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, The Stormy Winds and The Wrecked Ship.
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. It is well known in American folk tradition, and the text has appeared in many forms in both print and oral mediums. 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.
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. It is sung from the point of view of a member of the ship's crew, although the ship sinks without any survivors. 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. On the way out to sea, the captain sees a mermaid with a "comb and a glass in her hand". 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. In English versions crew members often identify their home port and the people (parents, wives, children) who will mourn for them:
Then up spoke a boy of our gallant ship
And a well-spoken boy was he
"I've a father and mother in fair Portsmouth town,
This night they will weep for me".
Many versions have a chorus describing the conditions sailors face in a storm:
When the stormy winds they did blow rough rough
And the raging seas did roar
While we poor sailors are up & to the top
And the land lubbers lying down below
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.
In most versions the ship is unnamed but in a version sung by Almeida Riddle of Greers Ferry, Arkansas, and collected by Max Hunter the mermaid disappears and the ship is identified as the Merrymac, perhaps influenced by the name of one of several US Navy ships named Merrimack.
I will sing you a song of th Merrymac at sea
O, a fine large vessel was she
An' she set sail for New Orleans
Then, sank to th bottom of th sea
A blackletter broadside entitled The Praise of Saylors here set forth dating from between 1654 and 1658 contains verses relating the encounter with the mermaid and the storm as well as others about the roles of various crew men, and the many virtues of sailors. Child's A version, titled The Seamen's Distress, was taken from "The Glasgow Lasses Garland", a chapbook published between about 1765 and 1785.
The Mermaid was frequently printed in broadsides and in song-books in the late 18th century and throughout the 19th century. The earliest of 17 broadside copies in the Bodleian Library broadside collection was printed by G Thompon of Liverpool between 1789 and 1820.
The Roud Folk Song Index contains about 93 different versions collected from traditional singers: 27 from England, 1 from Wales, 12 from Scotland, 1 from Ireland, 5 from Canada and 49 from the USA.
Some field recordings are available to listen online.
- Percy Grainger had a wax cylinder recording made in 1908 of Joseph Taylor singing Three Times Round Went Our Gallant Ship.
- The Mermaid sung by Norfolk singer Walter Pardon recorded by Bill Leader in 1974 is in the Reg Hall Collection, British Museum Sound Archive 
- The Merrymac at Sea sung by Arkansas singer Almeda Riddle1970 recorded by Max Hunter in 1970 is in the Max Hunter collection, Missouri State University.
- Ernest Stoneman and the Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers recorded The Raging Sea How It Roars in 1928.
- The Carter Family recorded The Waves on the Sea in 1941.
- Atkinson 1998, p. 446
- Roud Folk Song Indexes, Vaughan Williams Memorial Library; https://www.vwml.org/search?ts=1490310343340&collectionfilter=HHA;SBG;LEB;JHB;GB;COL;CC;DCD;GG;AGG;PG;HAM;MK;FK;EML;MN;TFO;CJS1;CJS2;FSBW;RVW1;RVW2;AW;RoudFS;RoudBS&advqtext=0%7Crn%7C124# Retrieved 2017/03/23
- Atkinson 1998, p. 440
- Niles 2000, p. 325
- Cazden, Haufrecht & Studer 1983, p. 262
- Hillcourt 1961, p. 20
- Niles 2000, p. 326
- Roud, S, and Bishop, J; The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs; London, 2012 p 33
- Full English Collections; Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Permanent URL: https://www.vwml.org/record/CJS2/9/1159 Retrieved 2017/03/24
- Cazden, Haufrecht & Studer 1983, p. 263
- Max Hunter Collection, Missouri State University; Cat. #0964 (MFH #414); https://maxhunter.missouristate.edu/songinformation.aspx?ID=0964 Retrieved 2017/03/24
- English Broadside Ballad Archive; EBBA ID: 31876 University of Glasgow Library - Euing 267 http://ebba.english.ucsb.edu/ballad/31876/image Retrieved 2017/03/23
- Child, F J; The English and Scottish Popular Ballads Vol 5 part 1; 1894; No 289.
- Roud, S, and Bishop, J; The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs; London, 2012 pp385-7
- Bodleian Ballads Online; Shelfmark: 2806.17(274) http://ballads.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/view/edition/8729 Retrieved 2017/03/23
- Reg Hall Collection, British Museum Sound Archive http://sounds.bl.uk/World-and-traditional-music/Reg-Hall-Archive/025M-C0903X0057XX-0500V0 Retrieved 2017/03/24
References and bibliography
- 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". Boy's 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.
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