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The Ship in Distress: 1 Logo of the English Folk Dance and Song Society: link to EFDSS website

It is generally agreed that the English ballad The Ship in Distress (Roud 807) derives from an older French song, La Courte Paille (sometimes called Le Petit Navire or Sept Ans sur Mer); there is also a Portuguese version, A Nau Catarineta. The English form seems to be of 19th century broadside origin, and burlesques of the French song also appeared in both France and England (Thackeray's Little Billee was set to the French tune of il y avait un petit navire) at much the same time.

It appears, however, that the Southern European songs have a Scandinavian ancestor. The following piece appeared in The Folk-Lore Record, Volume III part II, 1881, 253-257.

En Märkelig Vise om de Söfarne Mänd

Gustave Doré: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

An Old Danish Ballad

[Reprinted from a small tract, printed by Professor Svend Grundtvig.]

"The following old Danish ballad is now only found in a fly-sheet of the seventeenth century, the only known copy of which is in my possession.

Besides in this Danish form, the same ballad has come to us in two Icelandic versions from the seventeenth century, published in 1851 in Svend Gruntvig's and Jón Sigurdhsson's Íslenzk Fornkvaedhi, No. 6, Kaupmanna kvaedhi; and also in a Norwegian version taken down from oral tradition and published by Sophus Bugge in his Gamle norske folkeviser (Kristiania, 1858), No. 17, Dei frearlause menn. The Danish version is beyond doubt the best preserved and the most complete of the four Scandinavian forms, though each of them has interesting particulars of its own. Remarkably enough, this same ballad, which has not been found in Germany nor in England, has come to us in a French version, from Bretagne, Le Petit Navire, printed in Mélusine, 1877, p. 463, and also in a Portuguese version, printed by Almeida Garrett in his Romancero (Lisboa, 1851), and thence in a German translation in Ferdinand Wolf's Proben portug. u. catalan. volksromanzen (Sitzungsber. d. k. k. Ak. d. wissensch. Wien, 1856, p. 103, No. 9, Das sciff Cathrineta.)

It may still be remarked, that Tacitus in his Agricola (chapter xxviii.) has a story of some English mariners who in a similar distress at sea ate one another (see also Grimm's Sagen, No. 367), and the same thing is told in the German chapbook of Henry the Lion (Reichard, Bibl. d. romane viii. p. 127). But such, of course, may have passed more than once in reality, and shows no direct connection with our ballad."



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En Märkelig Vise om de Söfarne Mänd   

Der bode en konning i Babylon,
—De söfarne mänd.—
fire og tyve sönner havde han.
—De söfarne mänd,
i lunden der grode deres årer.

Somme vilde sejle, somme vilde ro,
ingen vilde hjemme hos faderen bo.

De gange dennem da ned til strand,
de glemte Gud fader, sön og hellig-ånd.

De lagde dennem ud at sejle til fuld,
de hissede deres sejt med silke og guld.

"Nu ville vi sejle og fare,
ja vel udi åtte åre."

De selje, de selje på bölgen blå,
de sejlede under et askärv, some de lå.

Alle vare de söskendebörn for sand,
så när som den gamle styremend.

De lagde dem ned at gräde,
de havde slet intet at äde.

"I tör ikke end ved at gräde,
I ville mig nu slet opäde."

De toge og bandt ham ved sejlende-stang,
de slagted ham som at andet lam.

De toge og bandt ham ved sejlende-trä,
de slagted ham, som bönder slagte fä.

De skare ud hans lever og lunge,
de bare for den unge konge.

"I salter det köd og gemmer det vel!
för vi äde deraf, da sulte vi ihjel."

Da kom der en due fra himmelen ned,
den satte sig på det sejlende-trä.

Kongen han taled til liden smådreng:
"Du skyd mig den due og kog mig den!"

"Jeg er ikke en due, at skyde händt,
jed er en engel, af himmelen sendt."

"Est du en Guds engel, som af går savn,
så hjälp du os over i Jesu navn!"

"Lägger eder hen at sove under ö!
mens jeg sejler over den sälte sö!"

Så vågned op den förste;
"Nu have vi vinden den bedste!"

Så vågned op den anden:
"Nu ere vi komne til landen!"

Nu er her gläde over alle med gammen,
—De söfarne mänd.—
fader og sönner de komme tilsammen.
—De söfarne mänd,
udi lunden der grode deres årer.
A Wonderful Ballad of the Seafaring Men

In Babylon lived a king of yore,
—The seafaring men.—
he had twenty sons and four.
—The seafaring men,
in the greenwood grew their oars. Oh!

Some would sail, and some would roam,
none would stay with his father at home.

They went to the strand with bang and boast,
They forgot God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

They laid out to sail so bold,
they hoisted their sails with silk and gold.

"Now we will sail, now we will fare,
nothing less than seven year."

They sailed and sailed the billows blue,
till under a rock, where wind never blew.

All were of the same kin and blood,
the old steersman was the only odd.

They lay down crying and weeping,
no crumb was left for eating.

Quoth the old mate: "Before you starve,
rather ye may me kill and carve."

They took and bound him to the mast,
they slaughtered him as another beast.

They slaughtered him as calf or lamb,
they cooked and carved him as veal or ham.

They cut out both liver and lung,
and bore it for the king so young.

"Keep it yourselves, and salt your meat;
I will much rather die than eat."

There came a dove from the heavens high
it sat down on the sailing tree.

Quoth the young king to his boy so wee:
"Shoot me that bird, and cook it for me."

"I am no bird to be shot for food,
I am from heaven an angel good."

"If thou art a God's angel, as thou dost tell,
In the name of Christ thou help us well."

"Lay yourselves down to sleep and rest;
while I will sail the salt sea best."

Up awoke sailor the airest: [1]
"Now we have wind the fairest."

Up and spoke another:
"I see the land of my mother."

There was mirth, and there was glee,
—The seafaring men.—
when father and sons each other did see.
—The seafaring men,
in the greenwood grew their oars. Oh!

[1] Airest, erest = first.


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