I first heard this sung by David Littlefield at a house concert and later at a “Chantey Blast” fund raiser for the Mystic Sea Music Festival. It had slipped my mind until one morning I awoke with the melody of the refrain revolving within my head and it drove me to distraction. After multiple inquiries through various contacts and channels, it dawned upon me one morning that I can hear Dave singing this and promptly sent a message off to him. In a ‘phone call later that day he gave me the name, sang a few lyrics, and sent me down the path to learn more about its history.
Gale Huntington collected it and printed it in his much lauded book “Songs the Whalemen Sang”, 1964. He recorded a version he learned from Welcome Tilton in the Folkways album “Folksongs from Martha’s Vinyard” in 1957, which in turn was picked up by Peter Bellamy to be recorded in 1979 for “Both Sides Then”, Topic Records. It is found again on “American Sea Chanteys” by Forebitter – Rick Spencer being one of those guys! Gale had collected it from the diary of a sailor Charles Murphy, crewmember of the whale ship DIANA in 1819… the entry for the song, called “A Song on the Nantucket Ladies”, is from that year, and it is supposed that Mr. Murphy had composed it – writing poems and songs not being an uncommon pastime for sailors long at sea. There are some musicologists that feel that the song is older still but to date I have not seen any evidence earlier than Charles Murphy.
It is an interesting song in that so many deal with the men, when ashore, meeting up with girls regardless of declared obligations at home. Here, on the other hand, a sailor wryly describes the girls back home taking to town in search of substitute male attention while their boys are away at sea; OK for the men to do it, but the women? Well, when the cat’s away… A sailor working a short run on a packet ship or fishing vessel would have little to worry about but aboard a whaling vessel he would be gone from perhaps two until four years – what’s a girl to do? And when he finally returns home, he’s sure to be welcomed with assurances that she was faithfully awaiting his return – sometimes with a child of a year old playing about!
The below is my own interpretation of this fo’c’s’le song (forebitter), reinserting a few verses from the original Murphy composition and then singing the Tilton refrain twice each time because it flows well.
D A D
Around Cape Horn the young men go
And when the young men go away
Then the young girls dress up neat
A G D A
They go a-cruisin’ down the stre-et
|: Right fol day, fol-de-diddle day
D A D
Right fol right-o, fol-de-diddle day :|
When off to sea their sweethearts go
Then they must have another beau
To wait two years they say they can’t
To wait two years they say they shan’t
Skein laces long and frills so neat
And bonnets work-ed so complete;
With their painted cheeks and curl-ed hair,
They think to make the new men stare.
Far from the fields are the young men gone
Far from home and all forlorn
Wish to God they’d never been born
For to go out cruisin’ round Cape Horn …
And when those young men do come home
This is the story that they hear
“Welcome home, you need not fear
No one has courted me, my dear.” …
Bright false smiles they like for to wear
Bright false bows in long false hair
White satin shoe with a silver bow
Take those young men all in tow …
Now to conclude and end my song,
There’s women tells me I am wrong
But if by chance they find it’s right
They may sing it from morn till night.