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Traditional English Folk Songs

A Collection Of Traditional British Folk Songs Full English - A Collection Of Traditional British Folk Songs features the amazing talents of Mat Williams who did most of the vocals and also played most of the traditional instruments involved in the recordings, such as Guitar, Violin, Viola, Mandolin, Banjo, Banman, Upright Bass, Piano and many more. Mat invited some fellow folk musicians to share him for this album and add more traditional instruments, such as the Irish Whistle, Uilleann Pipes and Bodhran. Enjoy the music and read along as you listen!


The Mermaid

Sound Sample:
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Twas Friday morn when we set sail
And we were not far from the land, (ahoy!)
When the captain, he spied a lovely mermaid
With a comb and a glass in her hand.

O the ocean’s waves will roll
And the stormy winds will blow,
While we poor sailors go skipping to the top
And the landlubbers lie down below, below, below,
The landlubbers lie down below.

And up spoke the captain of our gallant ship
And a well-spoken man was he, (I say!)
I have me a wife in Salem by the sea
And tonight she a widow will be.

O the ocean’s waves will roll
And the stormy winds will blow,
While we poor sailors go skipping to the top
And the landlubbers lie down below.


Words & Music: Traditional,
arranged & performed by Mat Williams

Then up spoke the cabin boy, of our gallant ship,
And a nasty little lad was he, (oi, oi!)
I’m not quite sure if I can spell ‘mermaid’
But I’m going to the bottom of the sea.


Then three times around went our gallant ship,
And three times around went she (oh no!)
Three times around went our gallant ship
And she sank to the bottom of the sea.


Origin and meaning of The Mermaid

Many and varied are the versions of this song: some long, ballad-like and sorrowful, some like this - cheerful, short and not making a lot of sense. There is no real story to it at all. Maybe the narrative got lost in the pub where this version obviously belongs.

It does have a lot of the common features of most sea songs though - the ones that aren’t about pirates or battles, that is - in that very soon up pops a mermaid. There are lots of half-and-half creatures in folklore and travellers tales on land as well as at sea. Werewolves and the eerie “selkie” legends of the Scottish islands are shape-shifters rather than permanent, as the mermaid is, but half-and-half nonetheless.

So popular was the idea of the mermaid that it appears in all sorts of unrelated places, Elizabethan needlepoint for example, where she floats in mid-air with three blue wavy lines underneath her to indicate the sea. She is a vacant-faced creature, holding a comb and a glass at unnatural angles; not very alluring.

Being alluring was the mermaid’s job really. Whether she is a siren or Lorelei, singly or in multiples, she was there to lure ships on the rocks where they were wrecked. This is one of the explanations this version leaves out. Maybe you are just meant to know.

There is supposedly a real origin for the mermaid - the dugong or manatee, which does sometimes rear itself half out of the water. It is an unlovely creature and the sailors who reported it as a beautiful maiden must have been very drunk or blinded with sea-spray.

The captain of the ship recognises his fate in this terrible storm, but typically announces it obliquely.

“I have me a wife in Salem by the sea
And tonight she a widow will be.”

Not: “I am going to die tonight”. This may be one of the hundreds of superstitions connected with the sea; that it is unlucky to say the word “die”. It was thought in many cultures that to mention the name of something was to invite it. Very often malevolent beings were called the exact opposite in order not to attract attention. The ancient Greeks called The Furies “The Kindly Ones” in the hope of eluding them. The sea has always given birth to superstitions (like the weather and harvest in “John Barleycorn.”) and no wonder. The power and unpredictability of the sea was terrifying, pitched against a cockle-shell of a fishing boat or a full-sailed man-o’-war. Some superstitions do not seem to make much sense though. The tradition that sailors do not learn to swim because THEN THEY WILL NEVER NEED TO lacks a certain logic, but then, so does a storm at sea. Any way of behaving that gives the illusion that you have some control over the uncontrollable is comforting. Not for nothing was the sea called “the old grey widow-maker.”

We then hear an unusual verse about the nasty little cabin-boy, unusual because cabin boys were generally a good thing in an Artful Dodger sort of way - cheeky, heroic, even prayerful: at least, in songs about the sea they were. It makes a change for him to be a little horror. He goes to the bottom of the sea, which presumably serves him right.

The last verse occurs in many death-at-sea ballads. Ships always go round three times. Three is a magic number of course - three wishes, three sons etc. I’m never quite sure whether the repetition is to drive the image home or whether it is cumulative in which case the ship would go round nine times .... never mind. Nine is also a magic number (three times three) and in a version as cheerful as this, who’s counting?

Commentary written by Gillian Goodman,
© ClassicRocks, Mat Williams 2012


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