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The illustration from the margins of the 14th Century French manuscript The Hours of Yolande of Flanders show that the image of a mermaid “with a comb and a glass in her hand” is quite old.

Mermaids are among folklore’s most beloved magical creatures, especially among children. Usually depicted as beautiful women with long, fishy tails, they’ve captured the imagination of many kids, and a few adults too. Most youngsters, and most parents, are aware of the sympathetic character from the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale The Little Mermaid, and its Disney adaptation. But they may not be aware that behind such stories lies a darker tale.

Or should I say a darker tail?

You can find traces of that older and more adult story in traditional ballads and tales that mention mermaids, including a popular old folk ballad generally known as “The Mermaid.”

Alan and Elizabeth Lomax collected a fine version of this old song from Eliza Pace of Hyden, Kentucky, in 1937. Hear Pace’s version in the player below, and follow along with the lyrics beneath that!

Eliza Pace’s “The Mermaid”

Cecil Sharp’s 1917 photo of Eliza Pace of Hyden, Kentucky. Used courtesy of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.

As I went out one evening
Far out of sight of the land
There I saw a mermaid a sitting on a rock
With a comb and a glass in her hand

A-combing down her long yellow hair
And her skin was like a lily so fair
Her cheeks were like two roses, and her eyes were like the stars
And her voice was like the nightingale clear

This little mermaid sprung into the deep
The wind it begin for to blow
The hail and the rain were so dark in the air
We’ll never see the land anymore.

At last came down the captain of our ship
With a plumb and a line in his hand.
He plumbed the sea to see how far it was
To the rock or else to the sand.

He plumbed her behind and he plumbed her before
The ship kept turning around
The captain cried out, “Our ship it will wreck
Where them vessels runs aground.”

Come throw out your lading as fast as you can
The truth to you I will tell.
This night we all must part
To heaven or else to hell.

Pace had also sung “The Mermaid” for the English collector Cecil Sharp twenty years previously, in 1917. At that time she sang one more verse:

This is a frame from Alan Lomax’s silent color footage of Eliza Pace from 1937. Lomax and his wife Elizabeth addressed her as “Aunt Lize,” and corresponded with her after meeting and recording her.

Come all you unmarried men that’s living on the land
That’s living at home at your ease
Try the best you can your living for to gain

And never incline to the seas

Eliza Pace certainly made an impression on collectors. Sharp commented on her in his diary, calling her “an old lady of 67 who we afterwards hear has been a great offender in retailing Moonshine and has been sentenced several times. But she has good songs. ” The Lomaxes clearly enjoyed Pace’s company too; they wrote to her later that year enclosing the words to a song she had asked for and signing off, “remember that we both love you very much.”

Pace’s song is similar in feeling and tone to a variant that was widely sung in England in the nineteenth century. This English variant was also very popular in the 1960s folk revival, due to its publication in the influential 1959 book The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. The text and tune in that book, selected and edited by Ralph Vaughan Williams and A.L. Lloyd, were based mostly on a version sung in 1906 by James Herridge or Herage (the collector and the census records spelled it differently), a railway plate-layer who was born in about 1840. Herridge’s version was first published in Folk Song Journal in 1907. To it, Vaughan Williams and Lloyd added verses found on broadside versions to come up with this text:

James Herridge, Ralph Vaughan Williams and A.L. Lloyd’s “The Mermaid”

John William Waterhouse’s painting A Mermaid was a diploma work presented to the Royal Academy in 1901 and published that year in The Art Journal. It is in the public domain.

One night as I lay on my bed,
I lay so fast asleep,
When the thought of my true love came running to my head
And poor sailors that sail on the deep.

As I sailed out one day, one day,
And being not far from land,
And there I spied a mermaid a-sitting on a rock
With a comb and a glass in her hand.

The song she sang, she sang so sweet,
But no answer at all could us make,
Till at last our gallant ship she tooked round about
Which made all our poor hearts to ache.

Then up stepped the helmsman of our ship
In his hand a lead and line;
All for to sound the seas, my boys, that is so wide and deep
But to hard rock or sand could he find.

Then up stepped the captain of our ship
And a well-speaking man is he,
He says, ” I have a wife, my boys, in fair Plymouth town
But this night a widow she will be. “

Then up stepped the bosun of our ship
And a well-spoken man was he,
He says, “I have two sons, my boys, in fair Bristol town
And orphans I fear they will be.

And then up stepped the little cabin boy
And a pretty boy was he,
He says, “Oh I grieve for my own mother dear
Whom I shall nevermore see. “

“Last night, when the moon shined bright
My mother had sons five,
But now she may look in the salt, salt sea
And find but one alive. “

Call a boat, call a boat, my fair Plymouth boys
Don’t you hear how the trumpets sound?
For the want of a long-boat in the ocean we were lost
And most of our merry men drowned.

The melody sung by Herridge and adapted by Vaughan Williams is suitably morose, and the song has the character of a dirge; you can hear this version on youtube from many folk revivalists, including Martin Carthy.

This illustration by Edmund Dulac goes with the celebrated story known as “The Little Mermaid.” It is from the 1911 book Stories from Hans Andersen. You can read it as part of the Library’s Selected Digitized Books.

Herridge’s and Pace’s versions of “The Mermaid” are both straight, dramatic stories, sung at a deliberate tempo, with no chorus. This fits the ballad’s plot, which is after all pretty bleak. When the sailors see the mermaid, they immediately begin to think of their loved ones and plan for their own deaths. They’re not wrong, either; by the end of the song, they’ve been drowned.

As the song made its way through oral tradition, it was adapted by resourceful singers to different environments. Stan Hugill, the sailor, singer, and song collector, wrote in Shanties from the Seven Seas that “The Mermaid” was popular as a sea shanty or work song, which was sung by sailors while pumping the ship dry. In that context, a chorus or refrain was crucial, so the sailors could use the rhythm of group singing to coordinate their physical labor. It’s probably for this reason that so many versions have a chorus today, describing how the sailors must climb to the tops of masts even in a storm, while the “landlubbers” or “landsmen” “lie down below.”

The song traveled all over the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and stuck around in the oral tradition. Many Appalachian and Ozark versions, while keeping the same basic plot, introduce touches that sound jollier. They held on to the seafarer’s chorus, but in some areas unfamiliar with nautical words, the last line became the delightfully nonsensical “the landlord is lying down below!”

This is the case for a version by Emma Dusenbury of Mena, Arkansas, which has the following jaunty chorus:

And the sea is a-roar-roar-roar
And the stormy winds may blow
While us poor sailor boys are climbing up the mast
And the landlord a-lying down below

Apart from those lines, though, Dusenbury’s ballad tells the same somber story, with the various sailors worrying about their loved ones at home as well as their own coming death:

I have a mother and sisters three
This night they’re waiting for me
They may look, they may wait til the cold water rise
Then look to the bottom of the sea

Emma Dusenbury draws water from her well in Mena, Arkansas. Photo by Vance Randolph.

Hear Emma Dusenbury’s version below:



Some versions introduce a character who acts to raise our spirits, either through bravery or by comic relief. Usually it’s the ship’s cook. After all the other characters lament for their wives, sweethearts, and parents, the cook declares that he is more concerned about the kettles and pots than the danger! The great North Carolina singer Bascom Lamar Lunsford had such a version, which you can hear in the player below.

Bascom Lamar Lunsford (standing) and two “Alabama visitors” at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, North Carolina, in the 1930s. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsc-00472

Sometimes the cook is a little more salty, and declares that he cares more for his pots and pans than for the other characters’ families! This seems to go back to old broadside versions in which, after three characters worry aloud about their wives, the cabin boy sings “I am as sorry for my mother dear as you are for your wives all three.” Combining this sentiment with the usual comic relief role of the tough and unsentimental cook gives us this stanza from Patty Newman’s excellent North Carolina version:

Up stepped the cook of our gallant ship
A greasy old butcher was he
He cared much more for his ovens and his hooks
Than he did for the parents of the mate

This stanza occurs without a previous mention of “the parents of the mate,” which suggests that Newman forgot to sing a standard verse in which the character’s parents “may look to the bottom of the sea.” This is consistent with other evidence in the collection. Mrs. Newman was a great singer with a huge repertoire—Fletcher Collins recorded 81 songs from her. But Collins wrote that as a college graduate, Mrs. Newman was accustomed to using written words as a memory aid and “studying on” a song for a while before attempting it, if it had been a long time since she had sung it. When Collins recorded her, she was losing her eyesight and couldn’t refresh her memory before his visits. As a result, Collins noted:

For many of the ballads she sang to us, she said she knew more stanzas than she was able to remember. She could usually remember that there was a stanza came in between two which she sang, or that there was something went on the front of the song, if only she could remember it, or that there was a lot more to that song. While in no way academic about these songs, she had a strong sense of their form and narrative…

Collins’s notes on Mrs. Newman and other singers are a valuable addition to his collection, which can be consulted in the AFC reading room. It’s fascinating that they happen to provide this confirmation of the song’s internal evidence that she might have forgotten a verse! Hear her version below–I edited it together from two different files, because a disc ran out of space in the middle of the song.

Loss of stanzas through forgetfulness is one way in which ballads can get shorter in tradition. Sometimes a ballad is distilled down to a little core of action, other times to what Tristram Coffin called an “emotional core.” Listen below to a version of “The Mermaid” by Samuel Harmon of Tennessee, whose very spare text had only three verses: in the first, the narrator spies the mermaid (whom he calls a “little sea miss”); in the second, the ship begins sinking; and in the third, the cook, who is a woman, laments her kettles and pots and declares she would “give one foot of dry land for the sea.”

“The Mermaid” On the Folk Scene

This stained glass window from the church of Saint-Sulpice de Fougères shows the traditional imagery of the mermaid with a comb and glass in her hand. The photo is by GO69 and was shared to Wikimedia Commons with a Creative Commons License.

On today’s folk scene, a brisk and humorous variant of “The Mermaid” is popular, mainly because of more than forty years of hearty performances by the Clancy Brothers, the most popular Irish folk group of the twentieth century. The Clancys sang “The Mermaid” with all their lineups, and at youtube, you can hear them sing it with Tommy Makem, or, if you prefer, with Louis Killen.

The Clancys based their arrangement on a 1956 setting by the American folksinger Paul Clayton. You can hear Clayton’s officially licensed version at YouTube as well.

The Clancy Brothers were widely influential in Irish music, but also in folk music more generally. Paul Clayton’s albums are still collected by singers of sea shanties. As a result of this, you’ll find very similar versions of “The Mermaid” performed in many corners of the professional and amateur folk music worlds, from Ireland to Australia, including the global Celtic music scene, the nautical music niche, and even the children’s music market. Examples on YouTube include Schooner Fare, Dan Zanes, Lazy Harry, and Danny Quinn.

The structure of this variant, with an introduction followed by discrete verses in which each member of the crew makes a brief statement about his own death, separated by choruses, makes it infinitely adaptable to new situations, which also helps keep it popular among both professional and amateur singers. It’s common to add verses about other crew members, such as the doctor or the gunner (as in this version by Bounding Main), and in small-group settings it’s common for amateur singers to add verses that refer to their own occupations or situations in their lives.

I perform with a group that sings this variant of “The Mermaid.” On one occasion, when the audience included a friend whose cat had just died, we sang a new verse in his honor:

Then up spoke the tomcat on our gallant ship
And a wise old fellow was he
“I’ve eaten many fish in my long, long life
But tonight many fish will eat me!”

Our own new verse, and the humorous adaptations of the song on the global folk scene, all highlight an interesting facet of the song’s meaning. Although it sounds lighthearted and upbeat, it’s still a song about death and disaster.  If it’s true, as psychiatrist Neil J. Elgee has written, that the fear of death is the first cause of laughter, then both the serious and the humorous versions of “The Mermaid” represent ways of coping with death. As Elgee wrote:

We are inescapably vulnerable and doomed creatures for whom, even in ordinary life, tragedy lurks. […] Social culture comes to our rescue, with songs and stories, rituals and belief systems, the sacred canopies. […] When the existential cover that culture provides is pierced, it is very often humor that serves as the first line of defense.

The ballad of “The Mermaid” is about death and mortality, whether we’re weeping with the wife of the captain, staring into the abyss with the parents of the cabin boy, smirking at the antics of the cook, or even making our jokes in the face of real or imagined doom.

Arthur Rackham created this 1909 illustration for Undine, a novella by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué. Read the book at the Internet Archive!

“The Mermaid” with No Mermaid

As further evidence that death is a more central theme than the mermaid herself, there’s a third major variant of “The Mermaid” common in American tradition, in which there is no mermaid–but death remains! In American versions of British and Irish songs, supernatural elements are often lost, and “The Mermaid” is no exception to this. Sometimes, the sailor just sees a girl or a “maid,” with no direct statement that it’s a mermaid. Maggie Gant of Austin, Texas, had a version like that, which you can hear in the player below.

But the supernatural element is even more thoroughly expunged in other versions. In these, the song begins when the ship is already sinking, so it appears to be about a simple shipwreck. AFC’s collections include many such versions, including one by Lina and Crockett Ward. Crockett was a member of the Bogtrotters Band from Galax, Virginia, who recorded many songs for John Lomax, and some for the dream team of Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger—but occasionally sang with his wife Lina as well. Hear their version below!

Lina and Crockett Ward, 1937. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsc-00402

The no-mermaid “Mermaid” has been part of the southern tradition for many years, perhaps since the Civil War. There’s audio of a version from Arkansas at this link, sung by Almeda Riddle and collected by Max Hunter, in which the ship is the Merrimac, a sidewheel steamer of the Union Navy, which sank off Florida in 1865. It’s also been part of the old-time and bluegrass repertoire since the first days of the recording industry, and on YouTube you can hear records by Ernest Stoneman, The Carter Family, The Lilly Brothers and Don Stover, Ralph Stanley, Ginny Hawker, and other well-known acts. The New Lost City Ramblers recorded two different versions, “The Raging Sea, How it Roars” and “The Waves on the Sea.” You can still hear this variant at bluegrass festivals to this day, where few of the singers and even fewer of the fans suspect that the song was once about a mermaid. To them, it’s simply a disaster ballad about death on the lonely sea.

The Tail Behind “The Mermaid”: Early Broadside Versions

This version of “The Praise of Saylors Here Set Forth” is at the University of Glasgow Library, shelfmark Euing 267. At the English Broadside Ballad Archive, its EBBA ID is 31876. It is online at the EBBA site with a Creative Commons license.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Harvard scholar Francis James Child published “The Mermaid” as number 289 in his collection The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. The oldest text Child found was from 1765, and this has led most subsequent scholars to say that the song dates from the 18th Century. However, there’s some good evidence to the contrary. Early printers sold single sheets of paper with songs on them, which were known as broadsides, and one broadside speaks volumes about our mermaid song. It’s called “The Praise of Sailors here Set Forth,” and is dated by scholars to about 1630. You can see one version of it here, and another version here. As its title suggests, it’s a song of general praise, discussing the dangers and hardships sailors endure while on the seas. Like “The Mermaid,” it contains a catalog of different members of the crew, but it describes their work, rather than their reactions to the sighting of the mermaid. The bosun, for example, sends other men to the top (a platform located at the top of the lower mast), presumably to reef the sails as the storm picks up:

This 1905 art nouveau illustration of a mermaid by Lucy Fitch Perkins is from the book The Moon Princess: A Fairy Tale by Edith Ogden Harrison. It’s part of the Library’s collection of selected digitized books.

The Boatson he’s under the deck
A man of courage bold
“To th’top, to th’top, my lively lads
Hold fast, my hearts of gold.”

Many of the verses have little in common with our ballad, but about half of them are clearly related to “The Mermaid.” For example, “The Praise of Saylors” contains a stanza very like the chorus of many versions of “The Mermaid”:

When the raging seas do foam
And the lofty winds do blow
The Saylors they go to the top
When Land-men stay below.

More importantly, the “smoking gun” occurs about halfway through:

It is a testimoniall good,
we are not farre from land,
There sits a Mermaid on the Rocke,
with Combe and Glasse in hand.

Our Captaine he is on the Poope,
a man of might and power,
And lookes when raging Seas doe gape
our bodies to devoure.

Our royall Ship is runne to racke,
That was so stout and trim,
And some are put unto their shifts,
Either to sinke or swim.

After this description of a mermaid and a raging storm, the song describes the ship becoming leaky, and the sailors manning the pumps to try to save her. (You have to wonder what they sang at the pumps!)

Up to this point, the ballad has been largely in the first person (note “we” and “our captain” in the stanzas above). After describing the men at the pumps, however, the ballad stops talking about this particular ship and crew, and begins to discuss sailors in general, in the third person:

And many dangers likewise they
Do many times endure
When as they meet their enemies
That comes with might and power.

Given the usual meandering nature of seventeenth-century broadsides, it’s hard to say if this was written as one long song, with verses in the third person and the first person indiscriminately mixed together. If so, what became “The Mermaid” was written in this form, in about 1630, and was refined over the years by having the verses of general praise dropped or forgotten. However, it’s worth noting that if you cut all the verses that describe sailors in the third person, and keep the ones describing “our ship” and “our captain,” you get a song that is very close to “The Mermaid.” This suggests that a version of “The Mermaid” could have existed separately, and could have been expanded with new verses, or combined with another song, to create “The Praise of Sailors.” If so, the 1630 broadside was composed after some version of “The Mermaid” already existed, placing the composition of “The Mermaid” even earlier, possibly in the sixteenth century. One way or another, it looks like our ballad has been sung by sailors and landlubbers alike for about four hundred years, and possibly even more.

What Does it all Mean?

Ayer’s Hair Vigor created this clever ad, which touches on several aspects of mermaid lore, including the associations of the mermaid with combs, mirrors, and shipwrecks. Why are they always seen near shipwrecks? To steal cargos of hair tonic, of course!

It’s pretty obvious from “The Mermaid” that mermaids weren’t considered good luck. On the contrary, seeing one almost always spelled disaster. There are hints of this belief in other ballads, too. The great shipwreck ballad “Sir Patrick Spens” tells the tale of a perilous sea voyage, which is doomed from the outset when the king chooses an unskilled captain. In some versions, before their inevitable shipwreck, the sailors see several signs warning them of their doom, including “the new moon with the old moon in her arms,” a traditional sign of heavy weather. In a few versions (including the ones Child lettered J, L, P, and Q), they see the exact same apparition as the captain in “The Mermaid”: “Then up did raise the mermaiden/With the comb and glass in her hand.” Moreover, this mermaid directly voices the bad news, telling Sir Patrick: “you never will see dry land!” (This happens in some older versions of “The Mermaid” too.) This confirms that, not only in “The Mermaid,” but in the British tradition more generally, mermaids were considered harbingers of doom.

One explanation sometimes given for mermaids being unlucky is that they are female, and that sailors considered it bad luck to have a woman aboard most ships. Many explanations have been given for this belief. One is the possibility of jealousies arising among sailors who fall for the same girl (which seems plausible). Another is the observation that the ship herself is referred to as “she,” and that the ship and the woman might become jealous of one another (which seems farfetched). Both these reasons (which you can find in this book, among others) suggest that the beauty of the mermaid could be a factor is her unluckiness as well.

Illustration shows two mermaids discussing the actions of a third mermaid, who appears to be flirting with a man on an ocean liner.

The January 25, 1911, issue of Puck Magazine featured the illustration “An Old Acquaintance” by Gordon Ross. It plays with the idea of the seductive mermaid. Given the date of the magazine (Robert Burns’s birthday), the title is probably a reference to “Auld Lang Syne.” Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. //

And there’s no doubt that in many versions of “The Mermaid,” the title character is beautiful and seductive. As Eliza Pace sang:

A-combing down her long yellow hair
And her skin was like a lily so fair
Her cheeks were like two roses, and her eyes were like the stars
And her voice was like the nightingale clear

Keep in mind, though, that the mermaid doesn’t entice the sailors to abandon ship, like the ancient Greek Sirens. And she doesn’t seem to take any action that endangers the ship either. In “The Mermaid,” as well as “Sir Patrick Spens,” a storm arrives just after she is sighted, and that’s what causes the ship to go down. In other words, she isn’t the cause of the shipwreck, she’s just a warning of the coming storm. Some versions of the song make this quite explicit; Paul Clayton and the Clancy Brothers sang: “This fishy mermaid has warned us of our doom/We will sink to the bottom of the sea.”

Some scholars have tried to explain the belief that merfolk were harbingers of storms in a purely literal and fairly prosaic way. W. H. Lehn and I. Schroeder examined Norse accounts in which sightings of mermen (mermaids’ male counterparts) were followed by storms. They argued that temperature inversions on the surface of the ocean could cause distorted images that looked like mermen, because the variations in the density of the air act as a lens. The conditions that cause this effect often precede violent weather, so this could account for the belief that seeing a merman predicts a storm.

It’s possible that the British belief about mermaids is derived from this earlier Norse belief about mermen. After all, British and Scandinavian sailors were in constant contact throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.

Most folklorists, though, would look for deeper meaning than this. Returning to the earlier observation that the song is more about death than about magical creatures, and that the mermaid is a warning, harbinger, or sign of impending death, what is the relationship between her form and her meaning? In other words, why should a mermaid specifically be a sign or symbol of death at sea? Why is that part of the meaning of the mermaid?

One reason is that, as land creatures who choose to live on the water, sailors constantly expose themselves to the danger of drowning. What could be a better reminder of this than a mermaid, a creature that seems to be human, but that has exactly what the sailor both needs and lacks: the natural ability to live in the water? For this reason, the mermaid is a potent symbol of the danger of drowning, and it’s only natural that she should be on men’s minds when such danger arises.

This illustration by Edmund Dulac goes with the celebrated story known as “The Little Mermaid.” It is from the 1911 book Stories from Hans Andersen. You can read it as part of the Library’s Selected Digitized Books.

Let’s also note that the ship in most versions of this song is “not far from land,” and the mermaid is “sitting on a rock.” In some versions, including “The Praise of Saylors,” these two facts are connected: the mermaid on a rock is “a testimonial” to their closeness to the shore. Paradoxically, the shore for sailors represented home and joy (and in many cases wives and sweethearts), but it also represented danger. During a storm, it is safer by far to be in the middle of the ocean than it is to have the shore close by. As all readers of Herman Melville and Patrick O’Brian know, being caught by a sudden storm near “a lee shore” was one of the most dreaded and dangerous situations known to sailors. Melville dwells on the sailor’s contradictory feelings of love and terror for the shore in chapter 23 of Moby Dick, “The Lee Shore”:

In the port is safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends, all that’s kind to our mortalities. But in that gale, the port, the land, is that ship’s direst jeopardy; she must fly all hospitality; one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through. With all her might she crowds all sail off shore; in so doing, fights ‘gainst the very winds that fain would blow her homeward; seeks all the lashed sea’s landlessness again; for refuge’s sake forlornly rushing into peril; her only friend her bitterest foe!

As this passage makes clear, while being “not far from land” might sound like fun, it is actually the worst place to be. The land nearby is a danger, and the very rock that serves as the mermaid’s perch can be the anvil on which your ship is pounded to pieces. In some versions of “The Mermaid” it’s suggested that this is the vessel’s fate.

This brings to light another, more symbolic aspect of shorelines, of being “not far from land,” and of rocks in the ocean. These are liminal spaces, boundaries between land and sea, neither one realm nor the other. Liminality, this quality of being on a border or boundary between two states, is traditionally associated with both magic and danger. Our most haunted time of the day is midnight, a liminal moment when it is neither one day nor the next. Our most haunted day of the year, Halloween, occurs at the boundary between seasons of the ancient Celtic year—some even say it was Celtic New Year, the boundary between one year and the next. The same dangerous, magical liminality pervades the mermaid ballad, not only in the location of the ship as “not far from land,” but in the mermaid herself.

This illustration by Elenore Plaisted Abbott is another interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” It’s from The Flower Maiden, and Other Stories, which you can read as one of the Library’s Selected Digitized Books.

Mermaids are liminal in two ways. In the most obvious sense, they are half woman and half fish, neither one nor the other. In this sense, they’re like centaurs, sphinxes, gorgons, and other ancient monsters with human and animal parts. Such beasts are typically depicted as magical, chaotic and dangerous, if not openly hostile to people. Mermaids are also liminal by location, and this way resemble faeries. Faeries are said to inhabit tumuli, which are artificial hollow mounds; they are under a covering of earth but above the earth’s original surface, neither aboveground nor below. Similarly, mermaids traditionally sit on rocks in the sea, neither on land nor in the water. Faeries tend to meet humans at gates and stiles; neither one field nor another. Mermaids and sailors, similarly, always meet at the boundary of water and air, the surface world and the world under the sea.

And what is that undersea world? It is depth and darkness, a vast realm of which we know almost nothing. After interacting with people at the surface, mermaids return below to this imperceptible and inscrutable dimension. Mermaids thus represent not only the danger of the liminal, but also literally the “subliminal,” that which is beneath the surface, the unknown and unknowable.

In 1937, the same year in which the Lomaxes recorded “The Mermaid” from Eliza Pace, Anais Nin referred in her diary to “the mermaid with her fish-tail dipped in the unconscious.” Nin recognized that mermaids symbolize the liminal boundary of the unconscious mind. The mermaid, then, is what many people call the subconscious, those joys and terrors that sometimes bubble up to the surface from the unconscious depths.

No wonder mermaids were both attractive and terrifying to sailors, and a good topic for a song with a fascinating tail.

Fri, 18 May 2018 13:00:45 +0000
“The Mermaid”: the Fascinating Tail Behind an Ancient Ballad
Mermaids are among folklore’s most beloved magical creatures, especially among children. Usually depicted as beautiful women with long, fishy tails, they’ve captured the imagination of many kids, and a few adults too. Most youngsters, and most parents, are aware of the sympathetic character from the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale The Little Mermaid, and its […]

The following is a guest post from Tom Rankin, a member of the AFC Board of Trustees.  A folklorist and photographer, Tom is Director of Duke University’s MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts, and was formerly the Director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke. 

Senator Thad Cochran’s official Senate portrait when he established his website, not long after he helped gain permanent authorization for the American Folklife Center. We believe this photo to be a work of the U.S. Government and in the public domain.

Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who held his seat from 1978 until his departure last month, left his indelible mark on the American Folklife Center. More than a few times I wrote to Senator Cochran (whom we all grew to call “Thad,” a testimony to his accessibility and humility) to ask him to help with the permanent authorization of the American Folklife Center.

In the beginning, and for over two decades, AFC had to rely on budgetary reauthorization every two years. In 1998, on the precipice of expiration for one of these two-year periods, I wrote to Thad to ask that he support permanent authorization. My explanation and rationale was simple: AFC was a vital component of the Library of Congress charged with stewardship of cultural heritage, and its collections held some of Mississippi’s most treasured folkloric jewels, deep reflections of the state’s complex history and enduring creativity.

In my letter, I cited the abundant recordings of black Mississippi voices made by John and Alan Lomax, from the Parchman blues and work songs to sacred sounds to the Greenville, Mississippi river and roustabout songs. I mentioned the state’s sacred harp traditions, which are so well documented and recorded in AFC collections. And I explicitly referenced the Herbert Halpert and Abbott Ferris 1939 folksong tour that gathered a plethora of Mississippi fiddle music, some of it very close to Cochran’s own home county of Pontotoc.

I also noted the canonical and deeply influential Mississippi John Hurt sessions, recorded by engineers at the Library of Congress in 1963. Included in those recordings is “Avalon Blues.” Homesick and a long way from home, Hurt sings about his hometown of Avalon in Carrol County, Mississippi. Hurt first recorded the song in 1928, and the identification of Hurt’s hometown as Avalon, combined with his sobriquet of Mississippi John, allowed later collectors to find him and bring him to the Library of Congress.  I ended with the Hurt recordings, mailing a letter that asked for Senator Cochran to do all he could to permanently authorize the AFC.

Not long after that, I received an encouraging handwritten response from Thad

Handwritten note. The text is in the body of the blog post.

Senator Cochran’s handwritten note to Tom Rankin, 1998

Dear Tom-

Thank you for the letter about the Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

I’m actively supporting a permanent authorization, and I hope we can convince the Senate, and even the House to approve it.

Congratulations on your new, impressive job at Chapel Hill!



Senator Cochran was as good as his word. On March 4, 1998, at a meeting of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, Thad had already spoken in support of per­manent authorization for AFC. Later, he introduced a bill in the Senate to that effect. It was Thad’s language from the Cochran bill which was included in the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill for 1999, granting the Center permanent authorization. Without Thad’s persuasive arguments on our behalf, and his own and his staff’s diligent work on the legislation, AFC might not have achieved this important milestone.

Months later, while in Washington for an AFC Board of Trustees meeting, I made an appointment to see Senator Cochran and give proper thanks for his transformative action on behalf of the AFC. Thad Cochran’s Senate office was welcoming, and naturally so. From Doris Wagley, his scheduler, on through his entire staff, the office was the opposite of intimidating: a space set up to be of service to all who entered. Thad Cochran set that tone, and you were as likely to run into a Pulitzer Prize-winning Mississippi author or well-known musician or painter as you were a lobbyist from the cattleman’s association. Senator Cochran is an old-style intellectual, an avid historian, a reader of anything that comes from Mississippi, and a whole lot more.

Senator Cochran once remarked to a Mississippi friend of mine that I was his ‘favorite Democrat.’ The truth is that Thad Cochran has many favorite Democrats, many favorite Republicans, and a long list of favorite Independents. As much as he—like all other Washington politicians—has had to operate within the realities of political party, he has always looked to what is best for Mississippi, regardless of who comes knocking. He was called by some a “quiet persuader” for his effective legislative work. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy reflected on Cochran’s career, telling the New York Times, “I assumed we would serve out our time together here,” adding, “He has always, always, always kept his word.” The American Folklife Center “always, always, always” had a friend in Senator Cochran, and his transformative act of pushing for permanent authorization in the late 1990s is a lasting testimony to his work on behalf of American folklife and the American people.



Thu, 17 May 2018 13:14:53 +0000
Thanking Senator Cochran, a Friend of Folklife
The following is a guest post from Tom Rankin, a member of the AFC Board of Trustees.

Tue, 15 May 2018 19:30:46 +0000
Who’s that Lady?
It might have been her eyes. Perhaps it was that hint of a knowing smile. Or maybe it was the culmination of it all—torso leaning in, chin on fist, legs crossed, nails polished and hat tilted. Whatever it was, it grabbed my attention when I first saw the sepia-toned image several years ago. Its subject […]

This blog post is part of a series called “Hidden Folklorists,” which examines the folklore work of surprising people, including people better known for other pursuits.

Portrait of a man in formal dress.

King David K

Thu, 10 May 2018 14:00:34 +0000
King David K

Tue, 08 May 2018 14:16:22 +0000
VHP’s Newest Online Exhibit: “Equality of Treatment and Opportunity”
In 1942, Stewart Fulbright was a man on a mission: he desperately wanted to become a pilot in the Army Air Corps. Just shy of the weight requirement of 125 pounds, he gulped down half a dozen bananas on his way to his physical exam, only to find out that a lengthy written exam was […]

This is a guest post by Marcia Segal, a Processing Archivist at the American Folklife Center.

Legendary blues singer Mississippi John Hurt’s song “Avalon Blues” appears on numerous recordings in the Tom Hoskins collection:

“…Avalon, my hometown, always on my mind…”

Hurt first recorded the song in 1928. In 1963, musician and blues music fan Tom Hoskins went to Avalon, Mississippi, encouraged by musicologist Dick Spottswood and their shared hunger to answer the question: was Mississippi John Hurt still alive? The day he arrived, Hoskins had his answer: yes. The next day, when he sat down to record Hurt, the answer was: yes, very much so. While Hurt had not recorded since 1928, his skills and gifts were still in evidence (and not rusty, as some writers have claimed). Using a guitar borrowed from Hoskins, Hurt’s performance was still commanding and moving all at once. This recording is part of the collection, along with other recordings, photos, original letters, and other materials. Details are available in the collection finding aid, recently made available online.

While Hurt’s story has been written, documented, and discussed since the second phase of his professional life, the collection provides a look inside the mind and career of the man who drove all those miles to find him. Hoskins and Hurt developed and maintained their personal and professional association from the time of their meeting until Hurt’s death in 1966, and Hoskins stayed in contact with Hurt’s family after Hurt’s passing. The underlying goal of Hoskins’s activities seems to have been to make sure as many people had a chance to know about Hurt and hear his music as possible. From a publicity folder there are lists of articles that could be used for free to promote Hurt, plus logs of recordings, interview transcripts, and Hoskins’s address books, as well as other materials.

Black and white photograph depicting a gas station in Avalon, Mississippi. There are several people at the entrance to the building, and a VW Beetle on the road in front. "Mar 63" printed on edge of photograph. Tom Hoskins collection, AFC2011/26.

Gas station in Avalon, MS. March 1963. Photograph from the Tom Hoskins collection, AFC 2011/26.

The collection includes handwritten letters from John and from his wife Jessie, and the music business side of Hoskins’s career, with stock certificates (issued and unissued) for Music Research, International (the company which originally had rights to promote Hurt and his recordings). Photographs taken in Avalon in 1963 and 1965 show John, Jessie, and other people, as well as buildings and other subjects. Concert images, in contact sheets and prints, document Hurt in performance during his brief resurgence; photos taken by Bob Campbell, Seth Beckerman, Jim Mahan, Paul S. Ulrich, and others. The only color photos in the collection are 21 Ektachrome 35 mm slides, showing Hurt during an undated concert performance. These images, plus the documents and recordings, shed further light on Hurt’s career, from Hoskins’s perspective.

Image of a handwritten letter composed by musician, Mississippi John Hurt. Letter describes his early life, indicating he was born in Carroll County, Mississippi. The letter also indicates that one of Mr. Hurt's school teachers was a "guitar picker." The letter is contained in the Tom Hoskins collection, AFC2011/26.

Letter written by Mississippi John Hurt. Part of the Tom Hoskins collection, AFC 2011/026.

The recordings made at the Library of Congress are also part of the collection (AFC 2011/026: SR059-SR064). On July 15 and July 23, 1963, Hurt recorded over 60 songs and stories in the Coolidge auditorium, and was interviewed by Joe Hickerson (later to become the Head of the Archive of Folk Culture). Another AFC collection includes the recordings: Mississippi John Hurt recordings collection (AFC 1964/003). Both sets of recordings provide a chance for listeners to hear the recordings without the commercial polish, but with all the improvements that recording in a concert-quality venue such as the Coolidge could (and still can) provide, not to mention a proper audio recording set-up both for Hurt and the guitar.

The Tom Hoskins collection takes its place at The American Folklife Center alongside other collections of folk revival-era recordings, including the University of Chicago Folk Festival, 1962 (AFC 1963/001), the Caffè Lena collection (AFC 2009/035), and other collections with live music that reflect the energy and spirit of the era.

Hurt’s “rediscovery” by Hoskins is not the only story the collection has to tell. Also in the collection are photos (most are black and white), taken by photographers who are sometimes identified. One such photographer was Bob Campbell, who photographed Hurt at The Gaslight, a club in Boston, circa 1964-1965. Hurt appears both on the stairs leading to the club, and onstage with other (unnamed) musicians.

Image of a black and white contact sheet from photographer, Bob Campbell. Frames depict Mississippi John Hurt on stage at the Gaslight Club with two unnamed musicians. Contact sheet is in the Tom Hoskins collection, AFC2011/26.

Contact sheet from photographer, Bob Campbell. AFC2011/26.

The collection has four contact sheets of Campbell’s photos. Campbell himself has his own story: an important, though lesser-known photographer of jazz musicians and other subjects in the 1950s-1960s. Archivist Jessica Ferber “rediscovered” him, publishing Rebirth of the Cool in 2015 as a retrospective of Campbell’s work. In this book Hurt’s photo appears among many other artists of the era.

Another “find” in the collection is a recording of Hurt’s first wife, Gertrude Conley, singing on the March 3, 1963 recording. This recording has not been released commercially:

In subsequent years there would be legal contentions regarding royalties, involving Hurt’s families, Hoskins, and others involved in business dealings related to Hurt’s career. And yet, here was Hurt and members of his families, in the same room, unaware of the rush of events to come, when John would move to D.C., take on the touring life, and back to Mississippi again. From the same recording comes the final selection, a duet with Hurt and Jessie:

Come to AFC and hear the recordings, read the documents, see the photos, and appreciate the lives of both Hurt and Hoskins.

Fri, 04 May 2018 13:00:29 +0000
When a song became a road map: the Tom Hoskins collection and Mississippi John Hurt
This is a guest post by Marcia Segal, a Processing Archivist at the American Folklife Center. Legendary blues singer Mississippi John Hurt’s song “Avalon Blues” appears on numerous recordings in the Tom Hoskins collection: “…Avalon, my hometown, always on my mind…” Hurt first recorded the song in 1928. In 1963, musician and blues music fan […]
Head and shoulders portrait of a man.

James B. Marcum, portrait published in The Morning Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), May 9, 1903, page 1.

On May 4, 1903, a prominent and well-respected attorney and U. S. commissioner, James Buchanan Marcum, was shot and killed on the steps of the Breathitt County courthouse in Jackson, Kentucky. “The J. B. Marcum Song,” more widely known as “The Ballad of J. B. Marcum,” preserves the memory of this important Kentucky citizen and the community trauma represented by his murder.

When Alan Lomax went to Kentucky to record folksongs, local ballads like this one were exactly what he was looking for. Lomax’s recording of Maynard Britton’s performance caught my attention because it is an attempt to preserve history through song, giving us a sense of the emotions of the events as they happened and a community’s sense of loss. Many ballads are changed over time and some are combined with other ballads. This one seems to me more like treasure from a time capsule. It borrows the tune and some bits of the chorus from the ballad “Jesse James,” and I wouldn’t argue that the complex historical facts are perfectly represented. But there is something haunting about the song that made me want to learn more about the events that gave rise to the ballad.

Marcum’s murder was the most famous of a string of killings associated with the disputed election of Breathitt County Judge James Hargis in 1898.  Hargis and his brother Alexander, both businessmen, had decided to go into politics and run for office as Democrats in 1898, James as County judge and Alex as state Senator. Another like-minded businessman, Ed Callahan, ran for Sheriff. This raised concerns for many of the people of the county. Both Republicans and Democrats decided to get together to oppose the elections of the Hargis brothers and Callahan. They formed what they called the Fusionist party and put up their own candidates. In spite of this strong opposition, the Hargis brothers were elected. Election tampering was suspected. Marcum, a father of five, had tried to keep out of the local disputes as he was able, but he could not avoid his responsibilities as an attorney. The Fusionists brought a suit to call into question the legitimacy of the election and hired Marcum to be their attorney. They lost.

The divisive election caused tensions leading to threats and violence in the small county.  In 1902 a barroom quarrel ended with the death of a brother of James and Alex Hargis, Benjamin, shot by Jackson town Marshall, Tom Cockrell. The Hargis family filed suit and Tom Cockrell asked Marcum to represent him. Tom Cockrell was cleared, but this success may have made things worse for Marcum. Another Hargis brother, John, died the same year on a train in neighboring Lee County when he became drunk and disorderly on a train and was shot by a railroad detective.

Profile portraits of three men with ribbons drawn to connect the photographs.

The most famous of the victims of the murders in Breathitt County, Kentucky in 1902-1903. Right to left, Dr. Cox, J. B. Marcum, and Jim Cockrell. This appears to be from a publication, ca. 1903. Found in “The Death of J.B. Marcum,” by Donald Lee Nelson. See the link at the end of this article.

Then people who had opposed the election of the Hargis brothers and Sheriff Callahan started being shot. These were not the result of arguments or conflicts with law enforcement, but premeditated murders. Judge Hargis and the Sheriff were suspected to be behind the killings. They had not only seen to the appointment of their cronies in powerful positions, but had increasingly surrounded themselves with a group of unsavory characters. Jim Cockrell, who had been made marshal when his brother was jailed, was shot by someone firing from inside the courthouse in Jackson. A well-liked doctor, B. D. Cox was also killed near the courthouse. These were only two of the murders that went unsolved, at least thirty are thought to have been related to the growing feud. Curtis Jett, a nephew of the Hargis brothers, was widely suspected as a shooter in many of these killings. He was known to be violent but had inexplicably been made a deputy marshal.

After the killing of his friend, Dr. Cox, Marcum filed an affidavit on behalf of his client, Moses Feltner, describing the lawlessness in Jackson as a reason Feltner feared to appear in court. He also wrote a letter to the Lexington Herald, describing the feud and saying that he feared for his own life as he was now seen as an enemy of Judge Hargis. This letter made national news. Judge Hargis dismissed Marcum’s statement as a pack of lies. Marcum moved his family out of Jackson and avoided the courthouse as much as possible. He knew he was a marked man as Feltner had told him about the plot. Feltner said he had been told to kill Marcum and had agreed, as he was afraid for his life if he refused. He showed Marcum where guns were stashed around town for various shooters to use if they had the opportunity. 

On the morning of May 4, Marcum went to the courthouse to file some papers. He met a friend, Benjamin Ewan, who was a deputy sheriff and paused to talk with him at the courthouse door. He was shot in the head from behind and died instantly. He had made his own murder all the more famous by publicly predicting it. 

Here is “The J. B. Marcum Song” performed by Maynard Britton. As sometimes happens with field recordings in the disc era, this was recorded on two bands on one disc with a break between verses:

It seems to me that justice in this case was far more poetic than legal. As the ballad says, Curtis Jett and another of the Judge’s men, Tom White, were tried twice. In the first trial Benjamin Ewan, although afraid for his life, testified that he had seen Jett shoot Marcum from inside the courthouse. The jury deadlocked 11 to 1 for conviction. The second trial was held at a different venue, again with Ewan’s testimony, and Jett and White were convicted as co-conspirators in the death of James Marcum and sentenced to life in prison. In order to avoid execution at sentencing, Jett confessed to killing Marcum and Dr. Cox. He named Judge Hargis and Sheriff Callahan as having ordered these murders. He was emphatic that Alexander Hargis had nothing to do with the conspiracy. James Hargis and Ed Callahan stood trial multiple times, with juries unable to return a verdict. Mrs. Marcum won a civil suit against James Hargis for wrongful death. Only White and Jett served time. Jett, who studied religion in prison, was released on parole in  December 1918 and became a preacher.

The violence did not simply end with the death of Marcum. Judge Hargis was killed by his son, Beach Hargis, in 1908. Sheriff Callahan was murdered on the anniversary of Marcum’s death, May 4, 1912. His killer is unknown.


Johnson, Lewis Frederick. Famous Kentucky Tragedies and Trials: A Collection of Important and Interesting Tragedies and Criminal Trials which Have Taken Place in Kentucky, Baldwin Law Book Company, 1916, “The Hargis Cockrell Feud,” pp. 320-336.

The Lomax Kentucky Recordings, a collaborative project of the American Folklife Center, Berea College Special Collections and Archives, The Association for Cultural Equity, and The University of Kentucky Libraries. This collection includes the recording of the Ballad of J. B. Marcum in this blog and another version by an unknown performer. Readers also will find many more field recordings of folksongs recorded in Kentucky. 

Nelson, Donald Lee. “The Death of J.B. Marcum,” John Edwards Memorial Foundation Quarterly, Vol 11 part 1, no. 37, Spring 1975,  pp. 7-22. Digitized by University Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Made available online by This gives a detailed account of the events leading to the death of Marcum as well as the text of the ballad.

Pearce, John. Days of Darkness: The Feuds of Eastern Kentucky, University Press of Kentucky, 1994.

“Startling Charges in Affidavits Filed in Breathitt Circuit Court,” The Morning Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), p. 1, November 11, 1902. This article includes the letter written by J. B. Marcum describing the ongoing feud and consequent murders in Breathitt County from December 24, 1901 to the date of the letter, as well as the threat on his own life. It also includes the test of a sworn statement by Moses Feltner, who was afraid for his life and had warned Marcum about the assassination plot. 

Tue, 01 May 2018 15:16:15 +0000
Caught My Ear: The Ballad of J. B. Marcum
On May 4, 1903, a prominent and well-respected attorney and U. S. commissioner, James Buchanan Marcum, was shot and killed on the steps of the Breathitt County courthouse in

Thu, 26 Apr 2018 16:20:50 +0000
The Homecoming of the James Madison Carpenter Collection: A Transatlantic Collaboration
On March 27, 2018, at Cecil Sharp House in London, the English Folk Dance and Song Society and the Elphinstone Institute of the University of Aberdeen hosted the public event

Folklife at the International Level: Recent Developments in Protecting Traditional Cultural Expressions

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