A few years ago, on the campsite of a historical re-enactment festival in the south of England, my mate Dave came up to me with an obscure tome in hand. I had just been performing some middle ages music.
“What do you think to this?”
Three Danish Galleys, in a book by Somerset folklorist Ruth L Tongue. The lyrics tell a really gripping story of a Viking raid and the story behind the song, on the same pages, made it even more interesting. I’m not a great sight reader but the tune didn’t look like anything modern.
Three Danish Galleys
Three galleys come sailing to Porlock Side
And stole them away a new wed bride
Who left my true love, lying dead on the shore
Sailing, out and away
I never shall see my dear, home no more.
Then up to her stepped the Danish King
And her he would wed with a golden ring.
The bride she made answer her tears between
I never will wed with a cowardly Dane.
Then out of the galley they tossed the bride
And laughed as she drowned in the cruel tide.
There came three small galleys from Porlock Bay
They fought with the Danes for a night and a day.
They fought til the decks with blood ran red
And every man of the Danes was dead.
(Sung to Ruth L. Tongue in London, 1919, by “a sea captain born in Porlock”.)
Miss Tongue had this to say about it:
“I had just finished a Folk Song Recital in London, and made my way back to sink exhausted into my dressing-room chair, when there came a hearty bang on my door which opened, and an elderly sea captain came in. He was smart, grey-haired, scarlet-faced, and as full of enthusiasm as a young westerly gale -and he had a ballad for me. His family had been Porlock folk right back to Drake’s time and before, and they had treasured and kept strictly to themselves this ancient ballad. Now having listened to that evening’s Somerset wealth, he had decided regardless of family traditions that it must be brought to the free air of a singing world and that I was the one to do it. Before the force of this Severn Gale, I found my weariness blown clean away, and was soon singing too. He had a tremendous voice and it hit like hammer-blows into my memory. He sailed tomorrow he said, so I must learn it then and now. I did, every verse, and sang it back to him. He gave me a delighted smile, a hearty farewell and a handshake that clamped my fingers for the rest of the evening, and went away, forgetting to leave his name.
The Danish raids on Porlock are mentioned in the AngloSaxon Chronicle (918), and The Three Danish Galleys is a very ancient ballad which has survived the alterations of singers of other centuries, and is surprisingly unspoiled.”
Doubt has been cast by some observers as to the history of the songs in the book. All are claimed to be old folk songs collected, but maybe they are a little too odd, a little too similar? And I looked up Porlock on the Anglo Saxon Chronicles online (you can do the same).
So, either it really is an obscure old folk song, held in one fmaily for generations.
Or she made the whole thing up.
Either way, I think it is a very cool song, so I’m happy with both explanations. Here’s a version performed live at the Te Rangi Festival.
Incidentally, I have done a demo with the amazing harpist Karen Jones, which will hopefully lead to a full studio version soon. If you want to hear it (and it was recorded at the wonderful Tsunami Studios so, trust me, you do want to hear it), then come and ask at one of my gigs. Give me your email address and I’ll ping you a sectet little link.