Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Cruel Ship's Carpenter

A murder ballad in which a man murders his girlfriend. He then takes ship, the ship runs into trouble and the girl's spirit returns to deal with the murderer.

According to the New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs; "This song was widely collected in Britain and Ireland with a huge number of versions found in North America where it was one of several songs called Pretty Polly."

The song originated in much longer form in the 18th century but was published in shorter form in the early and mid 19th century in shorter form by several broadside printers. There are a number of broadsides of this ballad in the Bodleian Library Broadside Ballad Collection. In them,  a sailor's suspicion that a ship with a murderer on board is unable to sail on further is invoked. In this case the murderer, having denied his crime is confronted by his ghost of his victim who tears him limb from limb.

The version I sing here, I found in Cecil Sharpe's and Maud Karpeles's book of songs they collected in the Appalachians in 1916/17. In this version the ship carrying the murderer sinks and his victim's soul comes to escort the murderer's soul to hell. I find this somehow more satisfying, I don't know why but it somehow feels more convincing.

I accompany myself on a soprano ukulele and have added a shruti box drone which added to the almost constant Gm chord, I think helps to convey something of the darkness of this song. 

I recently heard another version of this song sung by Bob Conroy of Long Island, USA on a visit here to the UK. His version was interesting because it lacked the ghostly element.

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