Hey Gibb, thanks. I was wondering if this song ever shows up on board an actual ship anywhere? It has nautical themes. Of course many versions end by cursing all sea-faring men, but still, it's a good story. I have not come across it in any of the sea-going materials I have looked at. But we know that it went to sea at least once when it crossed the Atlantic. And more than likely it came over many times and might even have gone back the other way as well (Alisoun Gardner-Medwin).
In her, now forty-year old - this is hard to believe! - article, entitled "The Ancestry of "The House-Carpenter": A Study of the Family History of the American Forms of Child 243" [which Mick Pearce has noted above], Gardner-Medwin suggests that the Scottish versions of this ballad may have come over, before the American Revolutionary War, with the Scottish tobacco traders, who came over from Scotland specifically to run the tobacco trading facilities in the port cities on the Atlantic coast, especially in Virginia and the Carolinas. Apparently they never intended to be permanent residents and many returned to Scotland when the war broke out. But if they were conveyers of the ballad, they certainly had constant access to sea going folks.
Gardner-Medwin says: "I believe that this ballad flourished here for at least two generations before it was printed [in 1858 & 1860]." And she says in the paragraph just before this statement that the printed "...English form of the ballad is by no means the only ancestor of the American "The House- Carpenter " and perhaps this essay will show that the connections with the Scottish side of the family are even stronger ." She goes on to suggest that there are "definite Scottish element(s)" to be found even in the De Marsan broadside, pointing back to earlier oral tradition. Gardner-Medwin says:
"...there are three verses in De Marsan that could not have come from the English B [version in Child] and are like verses found only in Scottish tradition. They are verses , where she takes the baby on her knee and kisses it, and the two verses in which the seducer says he will take the woman to a promised land (verses 3 and 10). Therefore there must have been influence from Scotland in the ballad before De Marsan printed it.....Where and when this mixing of the English broadside tradition and the Scottish oral tradition took place cannot be shown from this evidence alone, but I think that further investigation of the American tradition will show that it took place well before 1860 and probably in America."
At this point, I have to admit that I have only recently, with the advent of this particular thread, dived into any scholarship on this ballad. I am wondering if there is any more recent study of this ballad in its American context, since Gardner-Medwin's 1971 article. I know that forty years may or may not be very long ago in an academic context, but is there anything more recent? In addition to the Heylin book from 1999? Taking a quick look at Heylin's rather extensive bibliography, nothing leaps out at me. There is an article by David Atkinson on "Maarriage & Retribution in 'James Harris'" in FOLK MUSIC JOURNAL vol. 5 no. 5, 1989, but I would assume this does not focus on American versions.