Mermaids are among folklore’s most beloved magical creatures, especially among children. Usually depicted as beautiful women with long, fishy tails, they’ve captured the imagination of many kids, and a few adults too. Most youngsters, and most parents, are aware of the sympathetic character from the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale The Little Mermaid, and its Disney adaptation. But they may not be aware that behind such stories lies a darker tale.
Or should I say a darker tail?
You can find traces of that older and more adult story in traditional ballads and tales that mention mermaids, including a popular old folk ballad generally known as “The Mermaid.”
Alan and Elizabeth Lomax collected a fine version of this old song from Eliza Pace of Hyden, Kentucky, in 1937. Hear Pace’s version in the player below, and follow along with the lyrics beneath that!
Eliza Pace’s “The Mermaid”
As I went out one evening
Far out of sight of the land
There I saw a mermaid a sitting on a rock
With a comb and a glass in her hand
A-combing down her long yellow hair
And her skin was like a lily so fair
Her cheeks were like two roses, and her eyes were like the stars
And her voice was like the nightingale clear
This little mermaid sprung into the deep
The wind it begin for to blow
The hail and the rain were so dark in the air
We’ll never see the land anymore.
At last came down the captain of our ship
With a plumb and a line in his hand.
He plumbed the sea to see how far it was
To the rock or else to the sand.
He plumbed her behind and he plumbed her before
The ship kept turning around
The captain cried out, “Our ship it will wreck
Where them vessels runs aground.”
Come throw out your lading as fast as you can
The truth to you I will tell.
This night we all must part
To heaven or else to hell.
Pace had also sung “The Mermaid” for the English collector Cecil Sharp twenty years previously, in 1917. At that time she sang one more verse:
Come all you unmarried men that’s living on the land
That’s living at home at your ease
Try the best you can your living for to gain
And never incline to the seas
Eliza Pace certainly made an impression on collectors. Sharp commented on her in his diary, calling her “an old lady of 67 who we afterwards hear has been a great offender in retailing Moonshine and has been sentenced several times. But she has good songs. ” The Lomaxes clearly enjoyed Pace’s company too; they wrote to her later that year enclosing the words to a song she had asked for and signing off, “remember that we both love you very much.”
Pace’s song is similar in feeling and tone to a variant that was widely sung in England in the nineteenth century. This English variant was also very popular in the 1960s folk revival, due to its publication in the influential 1959 book The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. The text and tune in that book, selected and edited by Ralph Vaughan Williams and A.L. Lloyd, were based mostly on a version sung in 1906 by James Herridge or Herage (the collector and the census records spelled it differently), a railway plate-layer who was born in about 1840. Herridge’s version was first published in Folk Song Journal in 1907. To it, Vaughan Williams and Lloyd added verses found on broadside versions to come up with this text:
James Herridge, Ralph Vaughan Williams and A.L. Lloyd’s “The Mermaid”
One night as I lay on my bed,
I lay so fast asleep,
When the thought of my true love came running to my head
And poor sailors that sail on the deep.
As I sailed out one day, one day,
And being not far from land,
And there I spied a mermaid a-sitting on a rock
With a comb and a glass in her hand.
The song she sang, she sang so sweet,
But no answer at all could us make,
Till at last our gallant ship she tooked round about
Which made all our poor hearts to ache.
Then up stepped the helmsman of our ship
In his hand a lead and line;
All for to sound the seas, my boys, that is so wide and deep
But to hard rock or sand could he find.
Then up stepped the captain of our ship
And a well-speaking man is he,
He says, ” I have a wife, my boys, in fair Plymouth town
But this night a widow she will be. “
Then up stepped the bosun of our ship
And a well-spoken man was he,
He says, “I have two sons, my boys, in fair Bristol town
And orphans I fear they will be.
And then up stepped the little cabin boy
And a pretty boy was he,
He says, “Oh I grieve for my own mother dear
Whom I shall nevermore see. “
“Last night, when the moon shined bright
My mother had sons five,
But now she may look in the salt, salt sea
And find but one alive. “
Call a boat, call a boat, my fair Plymouth boys
Don’t you hear how the trumpets sound?
For the want of a long-boat in the ocean we were lost
And most of our merry men drowned.
The melody sung by Herridge and adapted by Vaughan Williams is suitably morose, and the song has the character of a dirge; you can hear this version on youtube from many folk revivalists, including Martin Carthy.
Herridge’s and Pace’s versions of “The Mermaid” are both straight, dramatic stories, sung at a deliberate tempo, with no chorus. This fits the ballad’s plot, which is after all pretty bleak. When the sailors see the mermaid, they immediately begin to think of their loved ones and plan for their own deaths. They’re not wrong, either; by the end of the song, they’ve been drowned.
As the song made its way through oral tradition, it was adapted by resourceful singers to different environments. Stan Hugill, the sailor, singer, and song collector, wrote in Shanties from the Seven Seas that “The Mermaid” was popular as a sea shanty or work song, which was sung by sailors while pumping the ship dry. In that context, a chorus or refrain was crucial, so the sailors could use the rhythm of group singing to coordinate their physical labor. It’s probably for this reason that so many versions have a chorus today, describing how the sailors must climb to the tops of masts even in a storm, while the “landlubbers” or “landsmen” “lie down below.”
The song traveled all over the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and stuck around in the oral tradition. Many Appalachian and Ozark versions, while keeping the same basic plot, introduce touches that sound jollier. They held on to the seafarer’s chorus, but in some areas unfamiliar with nautical words, the last line became the delightfully nonsensical “the landlord is lying down below!”
This is the case for a version by Emma Dusenbury of Mena, Arkansas, which has the following jaunty chorus:
And the sea is a-roar-roar-roar
And the stormy winds may blow
While us poor sailor boys are climbing up the mast
And the landlord a-lying down below
Apart from those lines, though, Dusenbury’s ballad tells the same somber story, with the various sailors worrying about their loved ones at home as well as their own coming death:
I have a mother and sisters three
This night they’re waiting for me
They may look, they may wait til the cold water rise
Then look to the bottom of the sea
Hear Emma Dusenbury’s version below:
Some versions introduce a character who acts to raise our spirits, either through bravery or by comic relief. Usually it’s the ship’s cook. After all the other characters lament for their wives, sweethearts, and parents, the cook declares that he is more concerned about the kettles and pots than the danger! The great North Carolina singer Bascom Lamar Lunsford had such a version, which you can hear in the player below.
Sometimes the cook is a little more salty, and declares that he cares more for his pots and pans than for the other characters’ families! This seems to go back to old broadside versions in which, after three characters worry aloud about their wives, the cabin boy sings “I am as sorry for my mother dear as you are for your wives all three.” Combining this sentiment with the usual comic relief role of the tough and unsentimental cook gives us this stanza from Patty Newman’s excellent North Carolina version:
Up stepped the cook of our gallant ship
A greasy old butcher was he
He cared much more for his ovens and his hooks
Than he did for the parents of the mate
This stanza occurs without a previous mention of “the parents of the mate,” which suggests that Newman forgot to sing a standard verse in which the character’s parents “may look to the bottom of the sea.” This is consistent with other evidence in the collection. Mrs. Newman was a great singer with a huge repertoire—Fletcher Collins recorded 81 songs from her. But Collins wrote that as a college graduate, Mrs. Newman was accustomed to using written words as a memory aid and “studying on” a song for a while before attempting it, if it had been a long time since she had sung it. When Collins recorded her, she was losing her eyesight and couldn’t refresh her memory before his visits. As a result, Collins noted:
For many of the ballads she sang to us, she said she knew more stanzas than she was able to remember. She could usually remember that there was a stanza came in between two which she sang, or that there was something went on the front of the song, if only she could remember it, or that there was a lot more to that song. While in no way academic about these songs, she had a strong sense of their form and narrative…
Collins’s notes on Mrs. Newman and other singers are a valuable addition to his collection, which can be consulted in the AFC reading room. It’s fascinating that they happen to provide this confirmation of the song’s internal evidence that she might have forgotten a verse! Hear her version below–I edited it together from two different files, because a disc ran out of space in the middle of the song.
Loss of stanzas through forgetfulness is one way in which ballads can get shorter in tradition. Sometimes a ballad is distilled down to a little core of action, other times to what Tristram Coffin called an “emotional core.” Listen below to a version of “The Mermaid” by Samuel Harmon of Tennessee, whose very spare text had only three verses: in the first, the narrator spies the mermaid (whom he calls a “little sea miss”); in the second, the ship begins sinking; and in the third, the cook, who is a woman, laments her kettles and pots and declares she would “give one foot of dry land for the sea.”
“The Mermaid” On the Folk Scene
On today’s folk scene, a brisk and humorous variant of “The Mermaid” is popular, mainly because of more than forty years of hearty performances by the Clancy Brothers, the most popular Irish folk group of the twentieth century. The Clancys sang “The Mermaid” with all their lineups, and at youtube, you can hear them sing it with Tommy Makem, or, if you prefer, with Louis Killen.
The Clancys based their arrangement on a 1956 setting by the American folksinger Paul Clayton. You can hear Clayton’s officially licensed version at YouTube as well.
The Clancy Brothers were widely influential in Irish music, but also in folk music more generally. Paul Clayton’s albums are still collected by singers of sea shanties. As a result of this, you’ll find very similar versions of “The Mermaid” performed in many corners of the professional and amateur folk music worlds, from Ireland to Australia, including the global Celtic music scene, the nautical music niche, and even the children’s music market. Examples on YouTube include Schooner Fare, Dan Zanes, Lazy Harry, and Danny Quinn.
The structure of this variant, with an introduction followed by discrete verses in which each member of the crew makes a brief statement about his own death, separated by choruses, makes it infinitely adaptable to new situations, which also helps keep it popular among both professional and amateur singers. It’s common to add verses about other crew members, such as the doctor or the gunner (as in this version by Bounding Main), and in small-group settings it’s common for amateur singers to add verses that refer to their own occupations or situations in their lives.
I perform with a group that sings this variant of “The Mermaid.” On one occasion, when the audience included a friend whose cat had just died, we sang a new verse in his honor:
Then up spoke the tomcat on our gallant ship
And a wise old fellow was he
“I’ve eaten many fish in my long, long life
But tonight many fish will eat me!”
Our own new verse, and the humorous adaptations of the song on the global folk scene, all highlight an interesting facet of the song’s meaning. Although it sounds lighthearted and upbeat, it’s still a song about death and disaster. If it’s true, as psychiatrist Neil J. Elgee has written, that the fear of death is the first cause of laughter, then both the serious and the humorous versions of “The Mermaid” represent ways of coping with death. As Elgee wrote:
We are inescapably vulnerable and doomed creatures for whom, even in ordinary life, tragedy lurks. […] Social culture comes to our rescue, with songs and stories, rituals and belief systems, the sacred canopies. […] When the existential cover that culture provides is pierced, it is very often humor that serves as the first line of defense.
The ballad of “The Mermaid” is about death and mortality, whether we’re weeping with the wife of the captain, staring into the abyss with the parents of the cabin boy, smirking at the antics of the cook, or even making our jokes in the face of real or imagined doom.
“The Mermaid” with No Mermaid
As further evidence that death is a more central theme than the mermaid herself, there’s a third major variant of “The Mermaid” common in American tradition, in which there is no mermaid–but death remains! In American versions of British and Irish songs, supernatural elements are often lost, and “The Mermaid” is no exception to this. Sometimes, the sailor just sees a girl or a “maid,” with no direct statement that it’s a mermaid. Maggie Gant of Austin, Texas, had a version like that, which you can hear in the player below.
But the supernatural element is even more thoroughly expunged in other versions. In these, the song begins when the ship is already sinking, so it appears to be about a simple shipwreck. AFC’s collections include many such versions, including one by Lina and Crockett Ward. Crockett was a member of the Bogtrotters Band from Galax, Virginia, who recorded many songs for John Lomax, and some for the dream team of Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger—but occasionally sang with his wife Lina as well. Hear their version below!
The no-mermaid “Mermaid” has been part of the southern tradition for many years, perhaps since the Civil War. There’s audio of a version from Arkansas at this link, sung by Almeda Riddle and collected by Max Hunter, in which the ship is the Merrimac, a sidewheel steamer of the Union Navy, which sank off Florida in 1865. It’s also been part of the old-time and bluegrass repertoire since the first days of the recording industry, and on YouTube you can hear records by Ernest Stoneman, The Carter Family, The Lilly Brothers and Don Stover, Ralph Stanley, Ginny Hawker, and other well-known acts. The New Lost City Ramblers recorded two different versions, “The Raging Sea, How it Roars” and “The Waves on the Sea.” You can still hear this variant at bluegrass festivals to this day, where few of the singers and even fewer of the fans suspect that the song was once about a mermaid. To them, it’s simply a disaster ballad about death on the lonely sea.
The Tail Behind “The Mermaid”: Early Broadside Versions
At the end of the nineteenth century, the Harvard scholar Francis James Child published “The Mermaid” as number 289 in his collection The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. The oldest text Child found was from 1765, and this has led most subsequent scholars to say that the song dates from the 18th Century. However, there’s some good evidence to the contrary. Early printers sold single sheets of paper with songs on them, which were known as broadsides, and one broadside speaks volumes about our mermaid song. It’s called “The Praise of Sailors here Set Forth,” and is dated by scholars to about 1630. You can see one version of it here, and another version here. As its title suggests, it’s a song of general praise, discussing the dangers and hardships sailors endure while on the seas. Like “The Mermaid,” it contains a catalog of different members of the crew, but it describes their work, rather than their reactions to the sighting of the mermaid. The bosun, for example, sends other men to the top (a platform located at the top of the lower mast), presumably to reef the sails as the storm picks up:
The Boatson he’s under the deck
A man of courage bold
“To th’top, to th’top, my lively lads
Hold fast, my hearts of gold.”
Many of the verses have little in common with our ballad, but about half of them are clearly related to “The Mermaid.” For example, “The Praise of Saylors” contains a stanza very like the chorus of many versions of “The Mermaid”:
When the raging seas do foam
And the lofty winds do blow
The Saylors they go to the top
When Land-men stay below.
More importantly, the “smoking gun” occurs about halfway through:
It is a testimoniall good,
we are not farre from land,
There sits a Mermaid on the Rocke,
with Combe and Glasse in hand.
Our Captaine he is on the Poope,
a man of might and power,
And lookes when raging Seas doe gape
our bodies to devoure.
Our royall Ship is runne to racke,
That was so stout and trim,
And some are put unto their shifts,
Either to sinke or swim.
After this description of a mermaid and a raging storm, the song describes the ship becoming leaky, and the sailors manning the pumps to try to save her. (You have to wonder what they sang at the pumps!)
Up to this point, the ballad has been largely in the first person (note “we” and “our captain” in the stanzas above). After describing the men at the pumps, however, the ballad stops talking about this particular ship and crew, and begins to discuss sailors in general, in the third person:
And many dangers likewise they
Do many times endure
When as they meet their enemies
That comes with might and power.
Given the usual meandering nature of seventeenth-century broadsides, it’s hard to say if this was written as one long song, with verses in the third person and the first person indiscriminately mixed together. If so, what became “The Mermaid” was written in this form, in about 1630, and was refined over the years by having the verses of general praise dropped or forgotten. However, it’s worth noting that if you cut all the verses that describe sailors in the third person, and keep the ones describing “our ship” and “our captain,” you get a song that is very close to “The Mermaid.” This suggests that a version of “The Mermaid” could have existed separately, and could have been expanded with new verses, or combined with another song, to create “The Praise of Sailors.” If so, the 1630 broadside was composed after some version of “The Mermaid” already existed, placing the composition of “The Mermaid” even earlier, possibly in the sixteenth century. One way or another, it looks like our ballad has been sung by sailors and landlubbers alike for about four hundred years, and possibly even more.
What Does it all Mean?
It’s pretty obvious from “The Mermaid” that mermaids weren’t considered good luck. On the contrary, seeing one almost always spelled disaster. There are hints of this belief in other ballads, too. The great shipwreck ballad “Sir Patrick Spens” tells the tale of a perilous sea voyage, which is doomed from the outset when the king chooses an unskilled captain. In some versions, before their inevitable shipwreck, the sailors see several signs warning them of their doom, including “the new moon with the old moon in her arms,” a traditional sign of heavy weather. In a few versions (including the ones Child lettered J, L, P, and Q), they see the exact same apparition as the captain in “The Mermaid”: “Then up did raise the mermaiden/With the comb and glass in her hand.” Moreover, this mermaid directly voices the bad news, telling Sir Patrick: “you never will see dry land!” (This happens in some older versions of “The Mermaid” too.) This confirms that, not only in “The Mermaid,” but in the British tradition more generally, mermaids were considered harbingers of doom.
One explanation sometimes given for mermaids being unlucky is that they are female, and that sailors considered it bad luck to have a woman aboard most ships. Many explanations have been given for this belief. One is the possibility of jealousies arising among sailors who fall for the same girl (which seems plausible). Another is the observation that the ship herself is referred to as “she,” and that the ship and the woman might become jealous of one another (which seems farfetched). Both these reasons (which you can find in this book, among others) suggest that the beauty of the mermaid could be a factor is her unluckiness as well.
And there’s no doubt that in many versions of “The Mermaid,” the title character is beautiful and seductive. As Eliza Pace sang:
A-combing down her long yellow hair
And her skin was like a lily so fair
Her cheeks were like two roses, and her eyes were like the stars
And her voice was like the nightingale clear
Keep in mind, though, that the mermaid doesn’t entice the sailors to abandon ship, like the ancient Greek Sirens. And she doesn’t seem to take any action that endangers the ship either. In “The Mermaid,” as well as “Sir Patrick Spens,” a storm arrives just after she is sighted, and that’s what causes the ship to go down. In other words, she isn’t the cause of the shipwreck, she’s just a warning of the coming storm. Some versions of the song make this quite explicit; Paul Clayton and the Clancy Brothers sang: “This fishy mermaid has warned us of our doom/We will sink to the bottom of the sea.”
Some scholars have tried to explain the belief that merfolk were harbingers of storms in a purely literal and fairly prosaic way. W. H. Lehn and I. Schroeder examined Norse accounts in which sightings of mermen (mermaids’ male counterparts) were followed by storms. They argued that temperature inversions on the surface of the ocean could cause distorted images that looked like mermen, because the variations in the density of the air act as a lens. The conditions that cause this effect often precede violent weather, so this could account for the belief that seeing a merman predicts a storm.
It’s possible that the British belief about mermaids is derived from this earlier Norse belief about mermen. After all, British and Scandinavian sailors were in constant contact throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.
Most folklorists, though, would look for deeper meaning than this. Returning to the earlier observation that the song is more about death than about magical creatures, and that the mermaid is a warning, harbinger, or sign of impending death, what is the relationship between her form and her meaning? In other words, why should a mermaid specifically be a sign or symbol of death at sea? Why is that part of the meaning of the mermaid?
One reason is that, as land creatures who choose to live on the water, sailors constantly expose themselves to the danger of drowning. What could be a better reminder of this than a mermaid, a creature that seems to be human, but that has exactly what the sailor both needs and lacks: the natural ability to live in the water? For this reason, the mermaid is a potent symbol of the danger of drowning, and it’s only natural that she should be on men’s minds when such danger arises.
Let’s also note that the ship in most versions of this song is “not far from land,” and the mermaid is “sitting on a rock.” In some versions, including “The Praise of Saylors,” these two facts are connected: the mermaid on a rock is “a testimonial” to their closeness to the shore. Paradoxically, the shore for sailors represented home and joy (and in many cases wives and sweethearts), but it also represented danger. During a storm, it is safer by far to be in the middle of the ocean than it is to have the shore close by. As all readers of Herman Melville and Patrick O’Brian know, being caught by a sudden storm near “a lee shore” was one of the most dreaded and dangerous situations known to sailors. Melville dwells on the sailor’s contradictory feelings of love and terror for the shore in chapter 23 of Moby Dick, “The Lee Shore”:
In the port is safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends, all that’s kind to our mortalities. But in that gale, the port, the land, is that ship’s direst jeopardy; she must fly all hospitality; one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through. With all her might she crowds all sail off shore; in so doing, fights ‘gainst the very winds that fain would blow her homeward; seeks all the lashed sea’s landlessness again; for refuge’s sake forlornly rushing into peril; her only friend her bitterest foe!
As this passage makes clear, while being “not far from land” might sound like fun, it is actually the worst place to be. The land nearby is a danger, and the very rock that serves as the mermaid’s perch can be the anvil on which your ship is pounded to pieces. In some versions of “The Mermaid” it’s suggested that this is the vessel’s fate.
This brings to light another, more symbolic aspect of shorelines, of being “not far from land,” and of rocks in the ocean. These are liminal spaces, boundaries between land and sea, neither one realm nor the other. Liminality, this quality of being on a border or boundary between two states, is traditionally associated with both magic and danger. Our most haunted time of the day is midnight, a liminal moment when it is neither one day nor the next. Our most haunted day of the year, Halloween, occurs at the boundary between seasons of the ancient Celtic year—some even say it was Celtic New Year, the boundary between one year and the next. The same dangerous, magical liminality pervades the mermaid ballad, not only in the location of the ship as “not far from land,” but in the mermaid herself.
Mermaids are liminal in two ways. In the most obvious sense, they are half woman and half fish, neither one nor the other. In this sense, they’re like centaurs, sphinxes, gorgons, and other ancient monsters with human and animal parts. Such beasts are typically depicted as magical, chaotic and dangerous, if not openly hostile to people. Mermaids are also liminal by location, and this way resemble faeries. Faeries are said to inhabit tumuli, which are artificial hollow mounds; they are under a covering of earth but above the earth’s original surface, neither aboveground nor below. Similarly, mermaids traditionally sit on rocks in the sea, neither on land nor in the water. Faeries tend to meet humans at gates and stiles; neither one field nor another. Mermaids and sailors, similarly, always meet at the boundary of water and air, the surface world and the world under the sea.
And what is that undersea world? It is depth and darkness, a vast realm of which we know almost nothing. After interacting with people at the surface, mermaids return below to this imperceptible and inscrutable dimension. Mermaids thus represent not only the danger of the liminal, but also literally the “subliminal,” that which is beneath the surface, the unknown and unknowable.
In 1937, the same year in which the Lomaxes recorded “The Mermaid” from Eliza Pace, Anais Nin referred in her diary to “the mermaid with her fish-tail dipped in the unconscious.” Nin recognized that mermaids symbolize the liminal boundary of the unconscious mind. The mermaid, then, is what many people call the subconscious, those joys and terrors that sometimes bubble up to the surface from the unconscious depths.
No wonder mermaids were both attractive and terrifying to sailors, and a good topic for a song with a fascinating tail.