By Manushag N. Powell, Purdue University
In the 19th century, pirate melodrama was a hugely popular genre on its own terms. An obvious connection between pirates and songs is that the exploits of the most famous pirates were long immortalized in ballads, which were popular among medieval audiences. A simple definition of a ballad is a song that narrates a story.
Formal features often linked to ballads in the anglophone tradition, short stanzas, frequent refrains, for example, and even particular meters and rhyme schemes. Ballad was a popular form, which did important work, communicating stories, among the marginally as well as the highly literate.
While ballads could last for generations, and memorialize heroes, and villains from folklore history, they were often topical. Ballads were a key means of propagating current events, news, and political opinions, among the general population.
Ballads that glorified pirates while they were still marauding, could be unnerving to the government, precisely because of their reach.
From the 16th century onwards, they were often sold in the street as broadsides—cheap single-sheet prints of the lyrics, often with the woodcut illustration.
The ballad hawker would sing the tune, to attract buyers. The number of ballads sold in England alone is estimated in the millions. Poems, plays, and novels, didn’t really come close to these in terms of their reach.
Popular Ballads of the Day
Some, though not most, of what these ballads had to say about the subject was even true. But often they serve simply as a call to adventure upon the high seas. A good example is the late 16th-century sea ballad of Francis Drake, “Upon Sire Francis Drake’s Returned from His Voyage about the World”.
It begins, “Sir Francis, Sir Francis, Sir Francis is come” and holds forth Drake as a patriot hero whose example is to be emulated for the glory of Queen Elizabeth.
In contrast, “Bold Captain Avery”, which appeared shortly after Captain Every’s mutiny, calls out, “Come all you young sailors, of courage so bold/That venture for money, I’ll clothe you with gold”.
Or “Captain Ward in the Rainbow” tells the “lusty gallants” to “strike up [with] music and sound of the drum [because] there has not been such a rover found out this 1000 years” despite James I’s open hostility to pirates in general, and Ward in particular. These admiring ballads about Drake, Every, and Ward, first appeared early in their careers.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Ballads on Captain Kidd
Arguably more moralistic takes appear in ballads, about pirates who’ve been caught. “Captain Kidd’s Farewell to the Seas”, a ballad commemorating Kidd’s execution (and in fact sold to the crowds who had gathered to see him hanged) became popular when things had gone pear-shaped, for that erstwhile pirate hunter turned pirate.
It’s truthful as ballads go: “My name is Captain Kidd/What the laws did still forbid/Unluckily, I did while I sailed.” Later verses cover Kidd’s murder of the gunner William Moore, his attack on the Quedagh Merchant, and harassment of French and Moorish ships in Kidd’s career.
The later American version of the ballad adds in an extra flourish about hidden treasure: “Come all you young and old/You’re welcome to my gold.” Like the other ballads, this one is still sung in both British, and American folklore festivals. The misbehavior and doom of Kidd do not harm the popularity of the song about him.
Ballads on Piracy
But there are also ballads about pirating in general, rather than specific famous pirates. In such ballads, the pirate is often a defeated foe. “The Coast of High Barbary”, for example, versions of which date back to the 16th century, describes an English ship encountering and bravely defeating a pirate.
When the captain hails an unknown ship, it replies, “I am not a man of war/nor privateer, said He;/blow high, blow low, and so say we;/ But I’m a salt-sea pirate/whose a-looking for his fee.” They then exchanged broadsides, as the historian James Seth describes. Another common ballad theme depicts a cabin boy outwitting pirates by sinking their ship.
In the ballad “Golden Vanity”, they even happen because there is rather than European pirates. And the cunning cabin boy offers to, “destroy the Turkish galilee, if no more shall annoy/as we sail in the Lowlands low”.
Most ballads developed variations as they age and travel, but recognizable themes pop up over and over. Actually, there’s something curiously durable, about the genre of the pirate ballad.
New ones are still being written, from “The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything”, (“We don’t know what he did/but we’re down with Captain Kidd”), to the 1992 Canadian ballad, “The Last Saskatchewan Pirate”, which is the tale of a failed farmer who turns to river piracy, warning the audience that they’ll soon “see the Jolly Roger on Regina’s mighty shores”.
Common Questions about Ballads as Creative Amusements for Pirates
A simple definition of the ballad is a song that narrates a story. Formal features often linked to ballads in the anglophone tradition, short stanzas, frequent refrains, for example, and even particular meters and rhyme schemes.
While ballads did memorialize heroes, and villains from folklore history, they were often topical. Ballads were a key means of propagating current events, news, and political opinions, among the general population.
The pirate ballads often dealt with varying themes such as glorifying the pirates, portraying pirates as the defeated foe, nuances of piracy, and other adventurous tales of the privateers.