In the liner notes for Inside Dave Van Ronk, Dave credits Lloyd’s performance as his source. On the other hand, it seems clear from Van Ronk’s knowledge of additional lyrics by his 1969 performance that he must have had more than Lloyd’s three verse recording as inspiration. Perhaps the liner notes to The Singing Sailor gave the longer set of lyrics – I can’t find that document online, unfortunately. Lloyd certainly knew of his colleague Vaughn Williams’ longer specimens, as liner notes for a later album suggest.
Here my inquiry about provenance must end. But given the breadth of Van Ronk’s musical friendships, his voracious appetite for reading and listening to just about anything related to authentic music, and his life experience, it’s no stretch to think that he could have easily found a source for the song beyond Lloyd if he was interested. The fact that he performed a longer version of the song in concert by 1969 proves at least that he was interested!
How about you? Still interested? I don’t blame you – but if you’re like me, part of you must be asking yourself a question we return to often in this blog – “Why does this horrible song move me like it does?”
Coda – “Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.”
It’s no doubt tempting for those who began their exploration of folk music through Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and/or through their British counterparts like A.L. Lloyd and Ewan MacColl, to look at “The Cruel Ship’s Captain” as an atomic-age artistic blow against the unearned privilege of class. If we look through that lens, we see first the poor boy from the work house bound as an apprentice, then bound in ropes, and finally murdered by his master – a cruel gentleman who doesn’t think twice about his right to abuse his underlings. Maybe that’s where Lloyd was coming from when he recorded the song, but when I first heard Van Ronk’s cover of Lloyd’s version, I didn’t think for a second about class inequality. Of course I know what I heard was also not what the original writer(s) of the song intended, but we’ll get back to my take in a minute.
What was the original intent of this song? It certainly wasn’t some sort of proto-Marxist political analysis coming some century or more before Das Kapital. Let’s not forget that the original form of the song is a gallows confession, representing the last words of the cruel captain before his own execution. Of course, Marx on his deathbed supposedly yelled at his housekeeper, who was seeking his last bits of wisdom, “Go on, get out! Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough!” Nonetheless, it doesn’t take a sociologist to see that there is obvious significance to this sort of ‘last words’ confession. For one, we can’t separate it from its religious dimension – the sin of murder and cruelty was an offense against God that had to be confessed before death, but so was the sin of violating the master-servant relationship, in either direction.
Consider for example the very last portion of the lengthy gallows confession of Thomas Hellier, a servant in Virginia who was sentenced to hang in 1678 for the axe murders of his master and mistress, as well as another servant, in an attempt to escape his indenture. The reference to Colossians 3:22 – 4:1 is unmistakable.
Also you that are Masters of Servants in this Country, have respect to them, to let them have that which is necessary for them, with good words, and not (Dam you dog, do such a thing, or such a thing.) They are not Dogs, who are professed Christians, and bear God’s Image; happily they are as good Christians as your selves, and as well bred and educated, though through Poverty they are forced to seek Christianity under thy roof; where they usually find nothing but Tyranny. Be good to your Servants, as you would have God be good to you. Servants, in all things obey your Masters according to the flesh, not with eye-service as man-pleasers, but with singleness of heart, fearing God. Masters, give to your Servants what is right and equal; know that you also have a Master in Heaven. [emphasis added]
When considering that a fisherman like Mr. Carter, Vaughn Williams’s 1905 source, sang the words “You captains all throughout the nations, hear a voice and warning take by me, take special care of your apprentice;” or a farmer like Harry Cox voiced the captain’s warning “Don’t be like me and ill-treat your servants,” it borders on the absurd to think that they were attempting to break their proletarian chains with art. Rather, it seems to me that they were expressing a deeply held worldview that was essential to British society, with its strict class hierarchy. The commoner must do his part and so must the gentleman, all as servants to their heavenly master. The more you look into the song, the more you realize that British law reinforced this as well. To be sure, a gentleman probably had more to fear from God’s justice than the Crown’s, but the fact remains that British law did punish some such abusers as the song describes. Captain Doyle, who drove Robert Eastick to suicide in the King’s Lynn case cited above, spent three months in prison, for example.
Still, in the end and as I said, I didn’t first hear this song through the ears of a left-wing folkie – and certainly not through those of a British commoner. I’m a middle-aged, middle-class, post-modern political misfit of a murder-ballad-loving Gen-X’er, whatever that means. So what did I hear?
I heard and hear Van Ronk’s song as an echo, an aural mirror reflecting the worst I can possibly be as a human being. I think I’ve always heard murder ballads that way to some degree, though not in the context of a traditional moral structure. To me, the horror Van Ronk evokes in “The Cruel Ship’s Captain” is something I recognize from my understanding of history as totally possible in the absence of decency and humanity. It is my responsibility as a human being to avoid that horror by being conscious of the corruptibility of human nature, and knowing it as malleable then to nurture compassion and empathy. I cannot excuse myself from making sure such realities never come to pass again.When music moves me until my skin and spine tingle, as this song does every time I hear Van Ronk perform it, then I know I’m listening to something important – something that can help.
Carl Jung in 1937 sent a letter to Kendig Cully while Cully was studying at Hartford Theological Seminary. Jung was apparently exhorting the young preacher-to-be to seek a guru of his own, in the Indian style. He lamented the lack of such a tradition in the West.
Anybody whose calling it is to guide souls should have his own soul guided first, so that he knows what it means to deal with the human soul.
Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.
It would not help you very much to study books only, though it is indispensable too.
But it would help you most to have a personal insight into the secrets of the human soul.
Otherwise everything remains a clever intellectual trick, consisting of empty words and leading to empty talk.
I guess, for what it’s worth, I’m saying that music is my guru – including especially murder ballads. It is not their darkness per se that compels me – it’s that they give me the wind my sails need to make the journey from darkness to light.
Thanks for reading and listening this week folks!