The Mermaid

from by James Bell

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about

A very well-known song with many variants. Martin Carthy does a dark minor version. But it was the version performed by the City Waites that caught my imagination.

One of the trickiest decisions I had to make was which words to use for the third line of the chorus. Most people sing ‘up and up aloft’ and I’ve heard other lines too. But my songwriter sense kept telling me that ‘up into the top’ just sounded better, so I went with that.

And that happens to be the version I found in the book that I’ve increasingly taken to calling ‘The Manual’: Popular Music of the Olden Time by W. Chappell. In it he describes the song as a “fragment of an old sea song, contributed by Mr. Charles Sloman in 1840.”

The song seems to suggest that mermaids were believed to have a sort of ‘Flying Dutchman’ effect: that simply to set eyes on them meant certain death. How the composer then managed to write the song after their own death is a bit of a mystery, but quite a common one in traditional songs, as the next one will demonstrate.

Chappell also specified this one should be performed “Right jovially, and moderately fast.” I did my best.

lyrics

One Friday morn as we set sail,
Not very far from land,
We there did espy a fair pretty maid
With a comb and a glass in her hand, her hand, her hand,
With a comb and a glass in her hand.

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While the raging seas did roar,
And the stormy winds did blow,
While we jolly sailor-boys were up into the top,
And the land-lubbers lying down below, below, below,
And the land-lubbers lying down below.
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Then up starts the captain of our gallant ship,
And a brave young man was he:
“I’ve a wife and a child in fair Bristol town,
But a widow I fear she will be.”

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For the raging seas did roar...
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Then up starts the mate of our gallant ship,
And a bold young man was he:
“Oh! I have a wife in fair Portsmouth town,
But a widow I fear she will be.”

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For the raging seas did roar...
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Then up starts the cook of our gallant ship,
And a gruff old bastard was he:
“Oh! I have a wife and a mistress and a dog,
Oh but widows I fear they will be.”

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For the raging seas did roar...
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And then up spoke the little cabin-boy,
And a pretty little boy was he;
“Oh! I am more griev’d for my daddy and my mummy
Than are you for your wives all three.”

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For the raging seas did roar...
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Then three times round went our gallant ship,
And three times round went she;
For the want of a life-boat we all went down,
And we sank to the bottom of the sea.

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For the raging seas did roar...
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credits

from Joy & Jealousy, released November 5, 2013
Traditional arranged by James Bell.

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about

James Bell Oxford, UK

Recording artist. Singer. Guitarist. Songwriter. Producer. Performer of traditional English music. Not interested in being famous. Very interested in making good music. Prone to stubbornly ignore the advice of friends in the pursuit of a singular and unique artistic vision, only to admit in a couple of years that, yeah, okay, that particular thing didn’t really work. ... more

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