The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #2169   Message #2624596
Posted By: NormanD
05-May-09 - 10:03 AM
Thread Name: Origins: Admiral Benbow
Subject: RE: Lyr Req: Admiral Benbow (from June Tabor)
I recently came across the following piece in George Orwell's writings for Tribune magazine. Please excuse the length - the following quote is from Orwell himself! His end comment about the song's then unavailability still seems to apply - I couldn't find a version on YouTube, for example.


"As I Please" Tribune, 29 December 1944

The English common people are not great lovers of military glory, and I have pointed out elsewhere that when a battle poem wins really wide popularity, it usually deals with a disaster and not a victory. But the other day, when I repeated this in some connexion, there came into my head the once popular song – it might be popular again if one of the gramophone companies would bother to record it – 'Admiral Benbow'. This rather jingoistic ballad seems to contradict my theory, but I believe it may have owed some of its popularity to the fact that it had a class-war angle which was understood at the time.

Admiral Benbow, when going into action against the French, was suddenly deserted by his subordinate captains and left to fight against heavy odds. As the ballad puts it:

Said Kirby unto Wade, 'We will run, we will run,'
Said Kirby unto Wade, 'We will run;
For I value no disgrace
Nor the losing of my place,
But the enemy I won't face,
Nor his guns, nor his guns.'

So Benbow was left to fight single-handed and, though victorious, he himself was killed. There is a gory but possibly authentic description of his death:

Brave Benbow lost his legs, by chain shot, by chain shot,
Brave Benbow lost his legs, by chain shot;
Brave Benbow lost his legs
And all on his stumps he begs,
'Fight on, my English lads,
'tis our lot, 'tis our lot.'

The surgeon dressed his wounds, Benbow cries, Benbow cries,
The surgeon dressed his wounds, Benbow cries;
'Let a cradle now in haste
On the quarter-deck be placed,
That the enemy I may face Till I die, till I die.'

The point is that Benbow was an ordinary seaman who had risen from the ranks. He had started off as a cabin boy. And his captains are supposed to have fled from the action because they did not want to see so plebeian a commander win a victory. I wonder whether it was this tradition that made Benbow into a popular hero and caused his name to be commemorated not only in the ballad but on the signs of innumerable public houses?

I believe no recording of this song exists, but – as I discovered when I was broadcasting and wanted to use similar pieces as five-minute fill-ups – it is only one of a long list of old popular songs and folk songs which have not been recorded. Until recently, at any rate, I believe there was not even a record of 'Tom Bowling' or of 'Greensleeves', i.e. the words as well as the music. Others that I failed to get hold of were 'A cottage well thatched with straw', 'Green grow the rushes, O', 'Blow away the morning dew', and 'Come lasses and lads'. Other well-known songs are recorded in mutilated versions, and usually sung by professional singers with such a stale perfunctoriness that you seem to smell the whisky and cigarette smoke coming off the record. The collection of recorded carols is also very poor. You can't, I believe, get hold of 'Minstrels and maid', or 'Like silver lamps in a distant shrine', or 'Dives and Lazarus', or other old favourites. On the other hand, if you want a record of 'Roll out the barrel', 'Boomps-a-daisy', etc., you would find quite a number of different renderings to choose from.