The Ship in Distress
You seamen bold who plough the ocean
See dangers landsmen never know
Tis not for honour or promotion
No tongue can tell what they undergo
In the blusterous wind and the great dark water
Our ship went drifting on the sea
Her rigging gone and her rudder broken
Which brought us to extremity
For fourteen days hot sore and hungry
Seeing but wild water and bitter sky
Poor fellows all stood in a totter
A-casting lots as to who should die
Their lot it fell on Robert Jackson
Whose family was so great
I’m free to die but oh me comrades
Let me keep lookout till the break of day
A full dressed ship like the sun a-glittering
Came bearing down to their relief
As soon as this glad news was shouted
It banished all their care and grief
Our ship brought to no longer drifting
Safe in St Vincent Cape Verde she lay
You seamen all who hear my story
Pray you’ll ne’er suffer the like again
Versions of The Ship in Distress are to be found in various collections, including Cecil Sharp’s One Hundred English Folksongs, first published in 1916. A country singer, James Bishop, of Priddy, Somerset, gave Sharp his version. However, it would seem that the song’s story was known, and probably originated, overseas, with versions found in France, Portugal, Scandinavia and Brazil.
The basic story is that, following a shipwreck, the survivors, adrift in a lifeboat, are faced with a stark choice: starve or eat one of their fellows. Although our version doesn’t specifically mention cannibalism, the other versions make it plain. However, before the unfortunate young man is killed he spies a ship (or sometimes a coast) and they are all saved.
There is a discussion of the song’s provenance here.
The words I use are those sung by Martin Carthy, but I have changed the tune. I came across an Irish song called Bold Doherty, which, to be honest, I found rather tedious. It went on for quite a while and was about .. buying a pair of shoes! However, I quite liked the aeolian mode tune, which was in 3/4. I played around with it a bit, reset it in 7/8, then reset it again in a syncopated 4/4. I cast around for a song to set to this reworked tune and eventually settled on The Ship in Distress. I was reluctant at first because I really like the 5/4 dorian tune I had more or less grown up with, but I was determined to use this new tune, so I overcome my reluctance and went for it.
What sounds like an electric guitar solo in the middle is actually an octave mandola. There is a bit of quiet electric guitar, played by our co-producer/engineer, Simon Marchant, on the fade.