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You Seamen Bold
(The Ship in Distress - Roud 807)
You Seamen bold who plough the ocean, see dangers landsmen never know |
It's not for honour, nor for promotion; no tongue can tell what you undergo
In bitter storm; in dread of battle; there are no back doors to run away
Or in the face of cruel starvation1 - mark well what happened just the other day.
A merchant ship, long time had sailèd; long time been captive out at sea
The weather proving so destructive2, it brought to them great tragedy
In the blusterous wind, on the great dark water, their ship went drifting on the sea
Her headgear gone, her rudder broken; which brought them to extremity.3.
Nothing on board, poor souls, to cherish; nor could set one foot on freedom's shore4
Poor fellows, they were almost starving; there was little left but skin and bone.
Their cats and dogs, how they did eat them; their hunger being so very severe
Captain and men in one position, Captain and men going equal share.
But at the last, the hitch came on them; the hitch came on them right bitterly5
Captain and men, all in a torture6, casting out lots to know which should die.
The lot it fell on one Robert Jackson, whose family once was so very great7
"I'm free to die, but, oh my comrades, let me keep lookout 'til the break of day."
A full-dressed ship, like the sun a-glittering, came bearing down to their relief.
As soon as this glad news was shouted, it banished all their cares and grief.
Their ship brought-to, no longer drifting; safety in St Vincent, Cape Verde, she has gained.8
You seamen bold, who hear my story, pray you'll never suffer the like again.
Contributed by Rod Stradling (rod @ mustrad.org.uk) - 25.5.04
A song I've known about for most of my singing life from the Penguin Book / Louis Killen version and, later, that of various members of the Copper family. But it was only quite recently that I heard Louis' again, and was struck by that line in the last verse - after all the horrors of starvation, Jackson's selection for murder and his final desperate plea - A full-dressed ship, like the sun a-glittering, came bearing down to their relief. And I could see that ship, glittering in the morning sun! I knew I had to sing it.
- I removed the Copper's redundant 'thund'ring cannon' half-line and substituted this, to bring the story straight to its main theme.
- Much more to the point than 'unsettled'.
- Two great lines added in from the Harwood version.
- Another brilliantly evocative line.
- I just love 'the hitch', but have changed 'at the last' and 'bitterly', which seem more appropriate.
- Roy Palmer mentions 'in a torture' but does not cite its provenance. I find it by far the most apt of the alternatives.
- I added three extra syllables (underlined) as a ploy to divert the listener's attention from the slightly risible 'the lot it fell on' phrase.
- Both more accurate and more grammatical.
But I also remembered lines from the Coppers - In dreadful storm, in dread of battle; there are no back doors to run away - and wanted them in my song, too. So I started looking for other versions.
Surprisingly, there are only six to choose from, and all are from Sussex - with the exception of one which Sharp collected from James Bishop, of Priddy, Somerset, in 1905, and which I don't have access to. My main sources, therefore, were Mr Harwood of Watersfield, Sussex, collected by George Butterworth in 1907 (published in the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs), and the Copper family, of Rottingdean, Sussex - as follows:
The Ship in Distress
Mr Harwood, Sussex
You seamen bold who plough the ocean, see dangers landsmen never know.|
It's not for honour and promotion; no tongue can tell what they undergo.
In the blusterous wind and the great dark water, our ship went drifting on the sea,
Her headgear gone, and her rudder broken, which brought us to extremity.
For fourteen days, heartsore and hungry, seeing but wild water and bitter sky,
Poor fellows, they stood in a totter, a-casting lots as to which should die.
The lot it fell on Robert Jackson, whose family was so very great.
"I'm free to die, but oh, my comrades, let me keep look-out till the break of day."
A full-dressed ship like the sun a-glittering, came bearing down to their relief.
As soon as this glad news was shouted, it banished all their care and grief.
The ship brought to, no longer drifting, safe in St Vincent, Cape Verde, she gained.
You seamen all, who hear my story, pray you'll never suffer the like again.
The Copper family, Sussex
You seamen bold that plough the ocean know dangers landsmen never know,|
The sun goes down with an equal motion no tongue can tell what you undergo.
In dreadful storm, in dread of battle there are no back doors to run away
While thund'ring cannon loudly rattle, mark well what happened the other day.
A merchant ship a long time had sail-ed, long time being captive out at sea.
The weather proved so unsettled which brought them to extremity.
Nothing on board, poor souls, to cherish nor could step one foot on freedom's shore,
Poor fellows they were almost starving, there was nothing left but skin and bone.
Their cats and dogs how they did eat them their hunger being so very severe,
Captain and men in one position, Captain and men went equal share.
But still at last a hitch came on them, a hitch came on them right speedily,
Captain and men stood in a totter casting out lots to know who should die.
The lot it fell on one poor sailor his family being so very great.
Those very words did he grieve sorrow those very words did he regret,
“I'm willing to die my brother mess-mates if you to the top-mast will haste away,
And perhaps you might some sail discover while I unto our dear Lord do pray.
Those very words did he grieve sorrow those very words did he regret,
When a merchant ship there came a-sailing there came a-sailing to their delight.
May God protect all jolly sailors who boldly venture on the main
And keep them free from all such trials never to hear the likes again.
I think it's fairly clear that the former is the superior piece in terms of literary merit - there's scarcely a word I'd want to change - but it does rather gloss over the essential theme of the story; the omnipresent danger of starvation at sea. And the latter has those great 2nd and 3rd verses ... so it was merely a matter of finding a way of combining them comfortably. To do this, I used a great favourite of mine - combining lines from both versions into extended verses, since the tune with its AABA format is very amenable to a repeat of its second half - AABABA.
The only other version I had available was that collected from H Akhurst, of Lower Beeding, Sussex, again by Butterworth in 1907. This follows the Coppers' one pretty closely for the first three verses, but then descends into hack ballad doggerel and ends with a sixth and final 'floater' of the 'now we're happy in old England ... drink unto our wives and sweethearts ... God protect all jolly sailors' type. I could only find 3 or 4 words I wanted to borrow from this one.
Not being a music reader, the only tunes I had access to were those of Mr Harwood (as sung by Louis Killen) and the Coppers. I used the former - though doubtless changed a bit. The Akhurst tune seems a little different from these, so I've made its staff notation available here.
Copper Family - A song for Every Season, Leader LEAB 404
Louis Killen - Farewell Nancy, Topic 12T 110
Copper, A Song for Every Season (1997 edn.) pp.145-146
Palmer, Boxing the Compass (2001) pp.165-166
Karpeles, Cecil Sharp Collection Vol 2, pp.297-298
Vaughan Williams & Lloyd, Classic English Folk Songs (2004) p.94