Introduction – “The Cruel Ship’s Captain”
Today’s ballad is notable both for its brevity and for the depravity it depicts. The brevity is mostly a product of the Anglophone seamen and laborers who worked the song over time to a fine edge like a blade on a whetstone. The depravity derives from the combination of human nature and power, a corrupting mix we’ve seen in this blog rather often. This time, though, the power in question comes from socio-political rank and the isolation of being at sea; and the resulting murder is for me one of the most troubling we’ve yet covered. I’m not speaking of gore, though this song has that too. What offends so deeply is the utter disregard for human life.
I know that sounds strange. Utter disregard for human life has pretty much been our bread and butter in this blog for over three years now. It’s a bit late to get squeamish! This one is different though – let me walk you through the keenest version of the narrative. A ship’s captain takes a young apprentice from a poor house, and later at sea becomes annoyed with him. He lashes his apprentice to a yardarm and leaves him bound and hanging in the cold for a day or more. Eventually the captain can no longer stand to hear the cries, so he bludgeons the boy to death. The End.
See? Still, I’ve not quite gotten you there, I’d wager. Listen to Dave Van Ronk deliver the story instead – with guitar or without, it’s your choice. The shorter version is my preference, recorded in 1962 and released on the 1964 album Inside Dave Van Ronk. The a cappella version, from a 1969 concert and released only as a rarity track after Van Ronk’s death, does add one more bit to the story. The captain is hung for his crime.
a cappella version from The Mayor of MacDougal Street (You Tube) – Live, 1969
A boy to me was bound apprentice
Because his parents they were poor.
So I took him from Saint James’ Workhouse
For to sail on the Greenland shore.
One day this poor boy he did annoy me.
Nothing to him did I say,
But I rushed him to my frozen yard-arm
And I kept him there till the very next day.
When his arms and his legs did bow down low,
And his hands and his feet likewise,
And with a tarry gasket I killed him
For I would not hear his cries.
(Additional verse – Alternate a cappella version)
Now all you sea captains who go out a-navying,
Take fair advantage by me
And don’t abuse your young apprentice boy
Or it’s hanged you sure will be
A “tarry gasket” is a rope covered in waterproof tar and used to lash furled sails. Other versions have the murder weapon as an iron bar, a marlinspike, or what have you. In some, the boy’s eyes and teeth “hang” out before the captain kills him. The older the variant, the more detail we find.
Van Ronk’s fourth verse, only sung in his a cappella version, suggests that it was in fact originally a ‘gallows song,’ written to represent the confession of the captain before his execution. Horrific and bone-chilling, these four verses show so much more than they tell. It’s not Van Ronk’s creation per se – he was just being a perseverator for this one – though it’s impossible to deny the muscle of his voice applied to these cutting lyrics. Those lyrics, though, were honed to such sharpness by the common Englishmen, who knew all too well the violence of gentlemen, particularly those privileged with martial or nautical rank.
In the next section, I’ll reflect a bit on the song’s context and provenance. Most importantly, I will finish today by exploring what might compel us to listen to this song in a world without sailing ships and the lethal discipline of the old Royal Navy or whaling and merchant ship masters. Let me state the obvious up front – I don’t think we can hear the song the same as did an old sailor or a common young lad on the Victorian streets of Norwich or King’s Lynn. But how did they hear it, and how do we?