Week 205 – The Golden Vanity

This was number 286 in Professor Child’s list. But it’s not one of the “big ballads”, and the storyline (disappointingly, I’m sure, for ballad aficionados) has no incest, fratricide, sororicide, filicide, prolicide or suicide. Indeed the song is often sung to a fairly jaunty tune, and I must admit that, when planning a setlist, this is usually included in the “jolly songs with chorus” category. Having said that, stop to think about it for a while and you realise that the death toll is actually quite high.

This version comes from the Sussex fisherman Johnny Doughty, although I learned it from Everyman’s Book of British Ballads, edited by Roy Palmer. At the time I suspect I’d never heard Johnny Doughty singing, although subsequently I saw him singing a number of times at Sidmouth and the National Folk Music Festival. He was a real entertainer, who relished being the centre of attention. His performances were punctuated by sly winks, and asides to his wife sat in the front row, especially when the topic of “a drop of treacle” arose (as I recall, his favourite tipple was a pint of Guinness).

Johnny Doughty. Photo by Doc Rowe, from the Musical Traditions article

Johnny Doughty. Photo by Doc Rowe, from the Musical Traditions article “Johnny Doughty… an interview with Vic Smith”

A recording of this song made by Mike Yates was included on the Topic LP Round Rye Bay for more, and I think I must have heard that at some point in the early eighties. I never owned a copy, however, until earlier this year when I was sorting through my parents’ record collection and, to my surprise, found a copy of the album snuck in amongst the country dance bands, the Tim Laycock, the Strawhead, the Max Bygraves, and Your One Hundred Best Tunes compilations.

Mike Yates’s notes on Round Rye Bay for more (quoted at mainlynorfolk.info)  provide this background on the song’s origins:

Sir Walter Rawleigh has built a ship in the Netherlands,
Sir Walter Rawleigh has built a ship in the Netherlands,
And it is called the Sweet Trinity,
And was taken by the false gallaly,
Sailing in the Lowlands.

So begins a blackletter broadside [Version A in Child], “shewing how the famous ship called the Sweet Trinity was taken by a false Gally, and how it was again restored by the craft of a little sea-boy, who sunk the Gally,” that was printed during the period 1682-85 by Joshua Conyers, “at the Black-Raven, the 1st shop in Fetter-lane, next Holborn.”

The history books appear to have missed this particular episode in Raleigh’s life—no doubt because it was a flight of Conyers’, or some other unknown printer’s, imagination; a simple attempt to increase sales by the addition of a romantic and well-known name to an otherwise commonplace tale. Whatever the origin, the ballad certainly caught the popular imagination with the result that more than a hundred sets have been collected throughout England, Scotland, America and Australia. Johnny’s final couplet is, to my knowledge, unique to his version.

Johnny Doughty’s unique ending was a half-verse

Was there ever half a tale so sad
As this tale of the sea
Where we sailed by the lowlands low?

If I were learning the song today, I would almost certainly keep that in. But 30-odd years ago for some reason I found it unsatisfactory, so I made up my own, somewhat tongue-in-cheek final verse, in which the young cabin boy wreaks terrible revenge on the perfidious captain and his crew. Which, of course, increases the death toll even more…

The Golden vanity, or The low lands low. Such ballad from the Bodleian collection.

The Golden vanity, or The low lands low. Such ballad from the Bodleian collection.

The Golden Vanity

2 Comments to “Week 205 – The Golden Vanity”

  1. It’s funny how different people have encounters with songs. This would have been one of the very first folk songs I knew well in my college years — I had it on a recording of Aaron Copland’s “Old American Songs”. As a result, I’ve always been on the lookout for it. Most recently heard it last weekend live from “Fire in the Fo’c’sle”. (Can’t listen to your version ATM, will save it to check out later.)

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