I'm teaching again this fall, one class of sophomores, and since I've been asking them to maintain commonplace books I've been keeping one of my own. Earlier this week I decided to try a second torn-paper collage (the first was the subject of my previous post on Throughlines, which it seems hard to believe was more than a month ago), and it came out, without a whole lot of planning or forethought, like this:
I don't know what you see when you look at this, a ducky or a horsey perhaps. But when I got done with it and took a step back, I know exactly what popped into my mind: it's a boat. And something in my reptile brain was telling me which one: the Golden Vanity. And therein hangs a tale.
Forty-five years ago, during freshman orientation week at Fairfield University, the luck of the draw for dorm rooms matched me up with a guy named Bill Sheehan. I had never met him before, and I did not see him much afterward, but the few evenings we spent together in that dorm room had a significant impact on my life. Because he had brought his guitar, and he could play, and he could sing, and he was familiar with a whole bunch of music I had barely heard of and certainly never heard.
It's hard to believe, listening to what gets played on radio stations today, that once upon a time there was room on the airwaves for the likes of Joan Baez and Judy Collins and Peter, Paul, and Mary. The folk music revival and the British Invasion (The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, among literally hundreds of others) happened more or less simultaneously with and helped to fuel political engagement - civil rights and Vietnam war protests among them - among high school and college students to a degree that is pretty much unimaginable today. A colleague had a conversation with his students during homeroom the other day and they apparently incredulous that such a thing as the draft ever existed.
Anyway, one of the songs that Bill Sheehan sang for me in our dorm room was a song called The Golden Vanity. It is number 286 of the set 305 songs included in the exhaustively researched English and Scottish Popular Ballads which were collected by Francis Child and published in a series of six volumes from 1882 to 1898. I bought the whole set in the Dover Paperback edition and I have it still.
As with all other ballads passed down by word of mouth over many generations, there are a lot of variations of the song. The one that Bill sang for me was a somewhat simplified and colloquialized version not unlike that recorded by dozens of folk musicians of the era. The lyrics as I learned them went something like this:
The Golden Vanity
There once was a ship and she sailed upon the sea
And the name of the ship was the Golden Vanity
And we feared she would be taken by the Spanish enemy
As she sailed upon the lowland, lowland, lowland
Sailed upon the lowland sea.
Then up spoke our cabinboy and boldly out spoke he
And he said to our captain "What will you give to me
If I swim along the side of the Spanish enemy
And I sink her in the lowland sea?"
"Oh I will give you silver and I will give you gold
And my own fair daughter your bonny bride shall be
If you'll swim along the side of the Spanish enemy
And you'll sink her in the lowland, lowland, lowland
Sink her in the lowland sea.
Then the boy he made him ready and overboard sprang he
And he swam to the side of the Spanish enemy
With his brace and auger in her side he bored holes three
And sank he her in the lowland, lowland, lowland,
Sank her in the lowland sea.
Then quickly he swam back to the cheering of the crew
But the captain would not heed him, for his promise he did rue
And he scorned his poor entreaties when loudly he did sue
And he left him in the lowland, lowland, lowland
Left him in the lowland sea.
Then the boy turned around and swam to the other side
And up to his messmates full bitterly he cried
"O messmates, draw me up, for I'm drifting with the tide
And I'm sinking in the lowland, lowland, lowland
Sinking in the lowland sea."
It's a grim little tale, no? Any way you read it, it's a downer. Perhaps the kid is a hero who gets screwed by the captain, who, now that he has what he wants, doesn't see why he should bothered to live up to his promise. Easier to let the little sucker drown. Or perhaps the kid himself is a greedy little manipulator ("What will you give to me?") who gets his just deserts, although that reading is contradicted by the cheering of the crew, who clearly see him as a hero. (In other versions of the song, however, the crew is too busy playing cards and drinking to take much notice of his plight.) But even if he did undertake the mission for selfish purposes, he has struck a blow for the home team. He deserves a better fate than a watery grave. It is, like many of the other "popular ballads," a strange song, with its little nugget of cynical wisdom, to be passing down from generation to generation.
However, as John Gardner use to say, "the passions may be terrible, but the syllables are a relief." The song, as Bill sang it, and as he sang many others, was hauntingly beautiful. I bought my first guitar two weeks after freshman orientation, and continued to play (not well, alas) for 35 years, before my shoulder basically gave up the ghost on me. But the song, and the story, and the memory, have stuck in my head, and were recalled up out of the deep by the chance fall of torn paper as it was glued down.