From the album Walking With Wainwright
The strongest part of the English folk-heritage music tradition is by far sea songs of one variety or another, particularly shanties. Unlike songs of the land, English sailors never stopped singing their songs of the sea, so they remained widely known and were passed down from generation to generation. This is one of several maritime fantasy songs that deal with females who dress up as men, and here she dresses up as a cabin boy and joins the ship’s crew. We suspect she’s really the captain’s bit of onshore “totty” because fairly soon she’s well and truly pregnant, and much merriment ensues because the captain’s wife is on board too. An added bit of spice in these songs is that back in the day it was actually illegal in England for women to masquerade as a man.
It's of a pretty female as you shall under/stand
She had a mind for roving unto some foreign/ land.
Attired in sailor's clothing she boldly did appear
And engaged with a captain to serve him/ for a year.
She engaged with the captain a cabin boy to/ be.
The wind was in their favour and they soon put to/ sea.
The captain's lady being on board, she seemed in great/ joy,
So glad the captain had engaged a handsome/ cabin boy.
So nimble was this pretty maid, and done her duty/ well,
But mark what happened after, the song itself shall/ tell.
The captain with the pretty maid did often sport and toy
For he soon found out the secret of the handsome cabin boy.
Her cheeks appeared like roses, and with her side-locks curled
The sailors often smiled and said, he looks just like a girl
By eating captain's biscuits it did her colour destroy,
And the waist did swell of pretty Nell, the handsome/ cabin boy.
T’was through the Bay of Biscay our gallant ship did/ plough,
One night among the sailors there was a pretty/ row.
They tumbled from their hammocks it did their peace des/troy,
It was all about the groaning of the handsome/ cabin boy.
"Oh doctor, oh doctor," the cabin boy did/ cry,
The sailors swore by all that's good the cabin boy would/ die.
The doctor ran with all his might, a-smiling at the/ fun,
For to think that a sailor lad should have a daughter/ or a son.
Now when the sailors all heard the joke, they all began to/ stare,
The child belonged to none of them, they solemnly declared.
The lady to the captain said, "My dear, I wish you/ joy,
For t’was either you or I betrayed the handsome/ cabin boy."
Then each man took his tot of rum, and drank success to trade
And likewise to the cabin boy, who was neither man nor maid
Let’s hope the wars don't rise again, our sailors to destroy
And here's hoping for a jolly lot more like the handsome cabin boy