About four or five years ago I went to see Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick at the Cornerstone Arts Centre in Didcot. This was one of the songs they played and, chatting to Martin in the interval, I must have mentioned it for some reason. “You should sing that”, said Martin, “it would suit your voice”. Well, if Martin Carthy MBE recommends that you sing a particular song, it strikes me that the only possible course of action is to follow his advice.
In fact I had known it vaguely, many years ago, as a result of buying a copy of the LP No Relation by Heather Wood and Royston Wood. I’d largely forgotten about it though, so set about learning it anew. I sought it out from the Journal of the Folk-Song Society No. 11 – completely forgetting that in fact it’s in the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs.
The version in the Penguin Book was taken down by Henry Hammond from Joseph Taunton, at Corscombe in Devon in 1907, and published in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society the same year. Hammond’s notes say that “Taunton learnt this from a soldier when he was 17 years old” (in the Journal the song’s provenance is given as “Mr. Taunton learnt the song 50 years ago from a man-of-war’s man” i.e. he learned it circa 1857).
Hammond also noted a version in Dorset, from Marina Russell. The opening line of Mrs.Russell’s version ran “French Admiral he is gone to sea”. Although the collector added that
Mrs Russell said “I don’t know whether ’tis “”Finch” or “French Admiral”
A much earlier ballad, the earliest known version of which was printed in the 1670s, is entitled ‘The Benjamin’s Lamentation For their sad Loss at Sea by Storms and Tempests: Being a brief Narrative of one of his Majesty’s Ships, call’d, the Benjamin, that was drove into Harbour at Plimouth, and received no small Harm by this Tempest’. Captain Chilvers is the “hero” in this case, and the song details – at somewhat tedious length – the various harms that befell the ship and its crew.
Strangely, although one might think that a song like this must have at least a kernel of truth, researchers have so far been unable to track down either the ship, or the hapless captain / admiral.
The Bold Benjamin