The Sailor Boy

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The Sailor Boy

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Miramichi, NB

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Sandy Ives












"The Sailor Boy" is a version of the 18th century British Broadside, "The Sailor's Tragedy" or "The Sailor's Ghost." It contains the motifs, "Murder will out," "Man thrown overboard to placate storm," and "Passenger brings bad luck to ship."


"The Sailor Boy" appears to be a version of an 18th century British broadside, called “The Sailor’s Tragedy” or “The Sailor and the Ghost,” whose story is as follows: A young man seduces a girl and leaves her pregnant. She commits suicide and her spirit haunts him until he goes to sea where she reappears and threatens a storm unless he is given up to her. The captain turns him over and the sailor and the ghost then sink in a lifeboat. Although “The Sailor’s Tragedy” is very widespread, the version we have here has not achieved quite the same degree of popularity. Its New World distribution appears to be confined solely to a few examples in Ontario, New York, and the Maritimes. It was also collected in Ulster, Ireland. Another version of “The Sailor’s Tragedy,” entitled “Handsome Harry,” is found solely in the United States and, because of its more “literary” style, was probably created especially for the Boston broadside press.

The major difference between “The Sailor Boy” and “The Sailor’s Tragedy” in terms of plot is that in our ballad here, Willie promises to be true to Mary although he is going to sea, and then forgets her, the result of which is her suicide, whereas the sailor in the other ballad willfully abandons the young woman and is then forced to go to sea by her spirit. However, the men meet the same fate. They are both given up as a sacrifice to appease a storm. In the Motif Index of Folk Literature, these are the motifs S264.1 “Man thrown overboard to placate storm” and N134.1.5, “Passenger brings bad luck to ship.” Although they appear in stories from all over Europe and Asia, it is especially worthwhile to note that these two motifs exist in several other ballads, including “The Gosport Tragedy”(Laws P36), “Captain Glenn” (Laws K22), “Brown Robyn’s Confession” (Child 57) and “Bonnie Annie”(Child 24). In all of these ballads, there is a character who has committed a morally questionable act who must be thrown overboard to save the ship. According to Francis James Child, these motifs are also common in Norse Ballads.

Another widespread motif in this ballad is that of the murderer’s crime being exposed against all odds. This is N271, “Murder will out,” also a proverbial expression. Although, in this ballad, Willie does not overtly murder Mary, it’s clear that his unfaithfulness is the cause of her suicide. Furthermore, like the “Cruel Ship’s Carpenter,” who has murdered his sweetheart, her ghost arrives to curse the ship and ask for him. He plays the same role as the ship’s carpenter. “Murder will out” occurs in numerous oral and written stories in a variety of ways, both supernatural and ordinary. In his article “Magical Corpses,” David Atkinson writes that “one of the multiple meanings of such murder literature is a popular expression of the ultimate desirability of the discovery and punishment of such murder” (Atkinson, 4). The discovery of murder echoes the wish to see order restored in a world which has become chaotic. In relation to this, Gavin Greig posits that the ballad known as “The Sailor’s Tragedy” illustrates the fundamental belief in retribution. It is obvious that the motif of the ship not being able to sail because of a criminal on board plays into this idea of things not being right with the world. The chaos of the storm is created because of the lack of resolution after the “murder” of Mary. The ship can only proceed normally when Willie is revealed to be the murderer. At this point, the world grows “calm and clear,” signifying its return to order.


1. Willie was as fine a sailor as ever spliced a rope/ And Mary was his own true love, his only pride and hope./ And as they walked, they often talked of joining wedlock’s banns,/ But Willie’s ship, it was commissioned to sail for a foreign land.

2. The day before he went away, he met Mary on the strand./ He took her in his arms and kissed her trembling hand,/ Saying, “Mary, dearest Mary, if we are doomed to part,/ I’ll come once more before I go to pledge your loving heart.”

3. “Oh, Willie dear, you’re going away to plough those raging seas./ Those foreign faces that you’ll meet, you’ll never think of me.”/ “If I should prove untrue to you, in foreign lands or nigh,/ I pray to God your spirit will haunt me til I die.”

4. They kissed, shook hands, and parted; soon Willie was safe on shore./ And all the parties that come back the utmost part he bore./ They danced and sang in wild career till each one found his love./ Another fair face had Willie’s heart won, poor Mary was forgot.

5. Now our ship is loaded; she leaves again today/ She gets into deep waters beneath the calm blue sky./ When all at once dark clouds arose and a heavy storm is nigh.

6. The thunder roared tremendous and the lightning did appear./ And Willie, being our right hand man, was sent to guide the wheel,/ When like a flash of lightning, appeared before his eyes./ And when it spoke it sounded just like the graveyard cries.

7. “Oh, Willie, you false and faithless man; it’s Mary’s voice you hear./ Don’t you mind the promise that you made while parting along with me?/ You said if you proved untrue to me in foreign lands or nigh./ You prayed to God my spirit would haunt you til you die.

8. Your captain wrote and told me of those false vows you had made./ I drowned my body; my bones do lie to bleach on Kerry’s shore./ And at the very last hour, we’ll both sleep in one tomb.

9. When an unknown wave swept over our deck, and swept him over the side./ He thought she cried, “no more to rise,”/ and the crew all shrank with fear./ But when he disappeared from sight, the light grew calm and clear. [spoken]


ballad, sea, Laws P34, separation, infidelity, revenant, Jonah, S264.1, N134.5, N271, Miramichi, New Brunswick, Mrs. Earle J. Dickson, Sandy Ives


Atkinson, David. “Magical Corpses: Ballads, Intertextuality, and the Discovery of Murder.” Journal of Folklore Research 36.1 (1999): 1-29. JSTOR. Web. 8 Nov. 2013; Bethke, Robert D. Adirondack Voices: Woodsmen and Woods Lore. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981; Greig, Gavin. “Folk-Song of the North-East cxxx.” Folk-Song in Buchan and Folk-Song of the North-East. Hatboro, PA: Folklore Associates, 1963; Creighton, Helen and Doreen H. Senior. Traditional Songs from Nova Scotia. Tornoto: The Ryerson Press, 1950; Kittredge, G. L. “Ballads and Rhymes from Kentucky.” The Journal of American Folklore 20.79 (1907): 251-77. JSTOR. Web. 03 Apr. 2014; Laws, G. Malcolm. American Balladry from British Broadsides. Philadelphia: The American Folklore Society, 1957; MacKenzie, W. Roy. Ballads and Sea Songs from Nova Scotia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1928; Manny, Louise and James Reginald Wilson. Songs of Miramichi. Fredericton, N.B.: Brunswick Press, 1976; Thompson, Stith. Motif-Index of Folk-Literature: A Classification of Narrative Elements in Folktales, Ballads, Myths, Fables, Medieval Romances, Exempla, Fabliaux, Jest-Books, and Local Legends. Vol. 5. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957.


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The Sailor Boy


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