The Merry Golden Tree

(The Golden Vanity)

(Child #286)

The Golden Vanity

There was a little ship sailed for North Amerikee,
And she went by the name of the Merry Golden Tree,
As she sailed on the lowland lonesome low,
As she sailed on the lonesome sea.

She hadn’t been a-sailing West two weeks or three,
When she was overtaken by the Turkish Robbery,
As she sailed on the lowland lonesome low,
As she sailed on the lonesome sea.

Then says Sir Raleigh, what will we do?
The Turkish Robbery it will cut us in two.
As we sail on the lowland…

There was a little sailor boy that run upon the deck.
And he says oh captain, I think we’ll be attacked.
As we sail on the lowland…

I’ll give you gold, I’ll give you fee,
And my only daughter for your wedded wife to be,
If you’ll sink her in the lowland…

The lad leapt down and away swam he,
And he swum and he swum to the Turkish Robbery,
As she sailed on the lowland…

He had a little auger made for the use,
And he bored nine holes in the hull of her at once,
As she sailed on the lowland…

Soime were playing cards and some were playing checks,
And before they cleared the boards the sea was to their necks,
As they sailed on the lowland…

Then he fell upon his breast and away swum he,
And he swum till he came to the Merry Golden Tree,
As we sailed on the lowland…

Cried he, kind captain, I have done your decree,
Now take me on board or I perish in the sea,
As we sailed on the lowland…

I will neither give you money nor neither give you fee,
My lovely young daughter I’ll never give to thee,
As we sailed on the lowland…

Nay, nay, sailor boy, you’ll never come on board,
Never will I be to you as good as my word,
As we sailed on the lowland…

If it wasn’t for the love that I have for your men,
I would do unto you as I done unto them
As they sailed on the lowland…

Then he bowed his little head and down sank he,
Farewell, farewell to the Merry Golden Tree,
And he sank in the lowland…

(Click here for a PDF version of the music) * (Click here to hear an MP3 recording)

This is one of the biggies. No one really knows which are the Top Ten English Ballads of All Time, but they surely include “The House Carpenter,” “Barbara Allen,” “Four Nights Drunk (Our Goodman),” “Lord Thomas (Fair Elinor),” “Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight,” and this one, commonly known as “The Golden Vanity.

Of those six, “The House Carpenter” has certainly been found in Minnesota, and is included in the Heritage Songbook. “Lord Thomas” and “Lady Isabel” are probably not found here. The other three have not been found here, but there are hints that they probably were sung here at one time or another.

In the earliest version of this song (“Sir Walter Raleigh Sailing in the Low-Lands,” probably from the 1680s), the cruel ship’s captain is (obviously) Sir Walter Raleigh, and the ship is The Sweet Trinity. Most recent versions don’t give the captain a name, and the ship goes by many names — The Merry Golden Tree, as here, or The Sweet Kumadee, or (most common by far) the Golden Vanity. The enemy may be a “Spanish Gallery,” (probably the original, since the reference to Raleigh takes us back to the Spanish Armada) or a “Turkish Revelry”; occasionally the ship is French. The endings vary; sometimes the heroic boy is rescued (usually because he threatens to sink the ship if he isn’t). There is actually a Canadian version in which the boy sinks the Golden Vanity, and the crew survive by using their life jackets while the wicked captain drowns! But the usual ending is that the boy dies in the sea.

Source: Even though “The Golden Vanity” has not been collected in Minnesota, the odds are high that it was sung here. There are many versions from Wisconsin, including texts from Pearl Jacobs Borusky and Warde Forde, probably the two greatest singers of traditional songs from Wisconsin (though Forde later moved to California). And the song may — I stress may — have been in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family tradition. Vance Randolph collected nine songs from Laura’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane in Mansfield, Missouri in 1930. This was the longest and fullest song she supplied. Unfortunately, her tune was not taken down.

Rose’s version is peculiar in its form. The first verse runs

There was a little ship sailed for North Amerikee,
Oh the lowland, lonesome sea,
And she went by the name of the Merry Golden Tree,
As she sailed on the lowland lonesome low,
As she sailed on the lonesome sea.

Bertrand H. Bronson found 103 tunes for “The Golden Vanity,” and as far as I can tell, not one of them fits this stanza form. The majority of versions are four lines long. A substantial minority are six lines long, and this includes many Ozark versions. A handful are five lines long, as this one is, but the meter of their second lines simply doesn’t fit Rose’s text.

There are three possibilities. One is that Rose’s version was genuinely unique, and her tune sadly lost. A second is that her version was a six-line version, which (in common with most six line versions) repeated the first line after the “Oh the lowland, lonesome sea” line. Vance Randolph, scribbling madly, failed to take down the third line of each verse, and when he came to print it, got it wrong. The third possibility is that Rose fiddled with the song herself. She was, of course, a novelist (a very large fraction of the “Little House” books are her work rather than her mother’s), and she is said to have connected this song with Walter Raleigh’s lost colony of Roanoke. So she might have fiddled with the song to make it fit her own theory.

In any case, we have to found a tune somehow. Since it’s a fairly long song, I decided to cut the song down to a four-line form rather than pad it to six. I then chose that one of the four tunes I know that best fit the shortened form; I learned it from the magnificent singing of Gordon Bok (he implies that he mis-learned it from a printed source, though he doesn’t say what printed source). It’s probably not what Rose Wilder Lane sang. But the “feeling” is likely similar.

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