Music has always been an important part of the sailing experience. In the 17th, 18th and well into the 19th centuries, men and women brought their own music aboard ship. As noted in the side bar, freebooters prized their musicians as bringers of joy, celebration and relief of stress. Naval ships of all nations also kept musicians aboard, although informally. The songs they played and sang often reflected the plight of the seaman, over-worked, under-paid, far from home. But just as often the songs were about the fairer sex who was missed as much at sea as home cooking. One of these was a now famous air named after an actual woman.
Nancy Dawson was an actress and singer in London in the mid-1700s. That’s her at the header in a contemporary lithograph from around 1760. She made a name for herself with her strong, lovely voice but, as with so many of her sisters on stage, she became famous for her free and easy way with the gentlemen. Find more details on Miss Dawson here at The Duchess of Devonshire’s Gossip Guide to the 18th Century.
The eponymous song was a particular favorite with sailors and may even have originated dockside along the Thames. It is most often played on the fiddle and by 1800 there was a dance to accompany it known as “The Faithless Nancy Dawson”. The tune has not lost its beauty or charm over the last two hundred plus years by any means. It has been included in more than one movie soundtrack, most recently the “Traditional Medley” from Master and Commander (find that here on YouTube), so it is still familiar to many.
For those who know it and those who don’t, and as a special Friday treat, Triple P offers a piece of our seafaring heritage in song: Isham Monday delivers an enchanting rendition of “Nancy Dawson”. Enjoy!