Song Lyric Sunday — “The Mermaid”

This is one of those Song Lyric Sunday weeks where, as soon as I saw the prompt (above / below / between), I started singing. “…and the landlubbers lie down below, below, below, and the landlubbers lie down below.” If you were a Girl Scout in the mid-1960s, as I was, (or Boy Scout), you probably learned “The Mermaid” at summer camp.

A traditional sea shanty, “The Mermaid” is sometimes called a Child Ballad because of its inclusion as #289 in an 1860 anthology of 305 English and Scottish ballads edited by Francis James Child. It has also been called Waves on the Sea, The Stormy Winds, and The Wrecked Ship, perhaps because, like many traditional songs, the lyrics have varied throughout the years. The Library of Congress has a long, interesting article tracing the song’s evolution in the U.S. You can listen to some of the old recordings here

The version I learned in Girl Scout camp was popularized by The Clancy Brothers. Irish immigrants to the U.S. after World War II, they may or may not have brought the song with them. A similar version had been recorded by North Carolina lawyer and Appalachian folk music performer Bascom Lamar Lunsford in 1949 for the Library of Congress’s American Folk Archives, but, since Lunsford’s version was not released until 1996, it is not likely to have influenced the Clancy’s. Could Lunsford have influenced American folksinger Paul Clayton?

Clayton grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts, a traditional New England seaport. He and his mother lived with her parents, both of whom were musical. His grandfather sang songs he learned from sailors; his grandmother, songs learned growing up on Canada’s Prince Edward Island, a mecca for immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, and England. In 1950, Clayton became interested in Appalachian dulcimers, and traveled to various states, including North Carolina, to learn more. Could he have met Bascom Lamar Lunsford and learned “The Mermaid” on that trip? Within six years, Clayton recorded a similar version in New York on Tradition Records.

Coincidentally, the founder and president of Tradition Records was none other than Patrick “Paddy” Clancy. Before founding Tradition, Paddy and his brother, Tom, had formed a production company, raising money by singing old Irish songs in NY’s Greenwich Village folk scene. In 1956, younger brother Liam Clancy and, separately, Tommy Makem immigrated to New York. Liam joined forces with Paddy to found Tradition; Tommy Makem came aboard when he was injured while working a printing press. The three Clancys and Makem recorded their first album for Tradition in 1956, the same time as Clayton’s recording of “The Mermaid.” Could Clayton have passed along “The Mermaid” to the Clancys?

In any event, the The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem released “The Mermaid” in 1964 on their “The First Hurrah” album, their fifth for Columbia Records. They had also recorded three albums for Tradition before signing with Columbia. “The Mermaid” had not been included on any of the earlier albums. Nevertheless, their version was remarkably similar to Clayton’s and stayed in their repertoire for more than 40 years.

Because I learned the Clancy’s version, I’m using lyrics that are most similar to their “Mermaid.” Clayton’s and Lunsford’s recordings follow after. Enjoy!

The Mermaid
It was Friday morn when we set sail and we were not far from the land
When our captain he spied a mermaid so fair, with a comb and a glass in her hand

And the ocean waves do roll, and the stormy winds do blow
And we poor sailors are skipping at the top
While the landlubbers lie down below, below, below
While the landlubbers lie down below

Then up spoke the captain of our gallant ship, and a fine old man was he
“This fishy mermaid has warned me of our doom, we shall sink to the bottom of the sea”

And the ocean waves do roll, and the stormy winds do blow
And we poor sailors are skipping at the top
While the landlubbers lie down below, below, below
While the landlubbers lie down below

Then up spoke the mate of our gallant ship, and a fine spoken man was he
Sayin’, “I have a wife in Brooklyn by the sea, and tonight a widow she will be”

And the ocean waves do roll, and the stormy winds do blow
And we poor sailors are skipping at the top
While the landlubbers lie down below, below, below
While the landlubbers lie down below

Then up spoke the cabin-boy of our gallant ship, and a brave young lad was he
“Oh, I have a sweetheart in Salem by the sea, and tonight she’ll be weeping over me”

And the ocean waves do roll, and the stormy winds do blow
And we poor sailors are skipping at the top
While the landlubbers lie down below, below, below
While the landlubbers lie down below

Then up spoke the cook of our gallant ship, and a crazy old butcher was he
“I care much more for my pots and pans than I do for the bottom of the sea”

And the ocean waves do roll, and the stormy winds do blow
And we poor sailors are skipping at the top
While the landlubbers lie down below, below, below
While the landlubbers lie down below

Then three times ’round spun our gallant ship, and three times ’round spun she
Three times ’round spun our gallant ship and she sank to the bottom of the sea

And the ocean waves do roll, and the stormy winds do blow
And we poor sailors are skipping at the top
While the landlubbers lie down below, below, below
While the landlubbers lie down below

 

 

11 thoughts on “Song Lyric Sunday — “The Mermaid”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s