I was at a folk festival a couple of weeks ago and Ioscaid were playing. I hadn’t heard them before but hope I will again very soon. One of the songs in their set seemed familiar enough to start with, being a tale of a young sailor led astray by strong drink and a pretty face. As always, he wakes in the morning having lost his money and his clothes. In this version of the song, however, he finds something as well, a shaving kit. A close shave indeed: as well for him he ‘fell asleep before she earned her fee’.
There’s quite a lot of cross-dressing in folk songs. Usually it’s women dressing as men and serving as sailors or soldiers. This is not without real life precedent: Hannah Snell served in India, concealing her sex despite being wounded in battle, and was paid an army pension after her discharge. Snell revealed her secret on the voyage home. In songs it’s usually found out another way: The Female Drummer is betrayed by a woman whose love she (naturally!) can’t return. She fares rather better than The Handsome Cabin Boy who receives the attentions of both the captain and his wife, and has the baby to prove it. Such tales are lightly told, the tunes lilt and swing along and we are invited to laugh as the deception is found out and the young women receive their comeuppance.
That’s not to say cross-dressing women never come out with the upper hand. I’ll finish with the tale of William Taylor, and his lover, sometimes named as Sarah Grey. He’s another sailor, pressed to the sea on the morning of his wedding day. Sarah’s not prepared to wait patiently for his return and dresses up to follow and to find him. Even when her sex is found out, she doesn’t go quietly home but demands the captain’s help in regaining her lover. Alas, this isn’t a tale of true loves and happy endings, lovers reunited over the pieces of a broken ring, as in songs like The Dark-Eyed Sailor. William has taken another bride and, like Sovay, Sarah knows how to use a pistol. In some versions of the song the captain is so impressed by her decisiveness he makes her a commander. Now that, I think, is the unlikeliest tale of all.