Maid on the Shore is an oddity. It’s a “virtue defended” plot, like Lovely Joan (but also the Broomfield Wager and Martinmas Time), in a particularly exaggerated tall-story form; there’s no real jeopardy or tension in this telling of the story, just one daft scene after another.
It’s a lot of fun to sing – not least because of the tune, which goes beyond intricate into weird. It’s fiddly to sing, but playing it is something else. When I first moved on from English to Irish dance tunes I was baffled by the way they all seemed to go up one way and down another. This tune takes it further – it doesn’t even come down in the same key it went up in. (I learned the tune by ear (and by touch), so I haven’t seen it written out, but I think I’m right in saying that it starts in C, goes into F, then back into C, then into G and then finishes back in C.) My original plan was to accompany myself ‘live’ on the concertina; my original plan didn’t survive my first attempt to play the tune.
This is a song I only learned this week; in fact I only heard it for the second time this week, on playing Martin Carthy’s Second Album (which I’d bought a while back, played once and forgotten about). I was already planning to do Shirt and Comb, along with another conscription song, but I had no idea it had such a direct traditional ancestor. The extraordinary tune was a bonus.
It’s a strange, almost fairytale-like song: however short of men the navy was, it’s hard to imagine any bold sea captain haling a man out of his bed on his wedding night, as this one does. The geography is sketchy to say the least, and the final verse seems to have floated in from another song entirely (possibly Clerk Sanders). And yet the whole thing works beautifully.
Martin Carthy accompanied himself on guitar when he sang this, but I thought the tune was chunky enough to be taken unaccompanied. I also slowed it down; this took a bit of nerve – it always feels as if you’re going to lose the audience’s attention – but I think it worked. See what you think.