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Bold Benjamin-O / Admiral Cole

[ Roud 2632 ; Ballad Index VWL023 ; VWML HAM/5/34/17 ; Bodleian Roud 2632 ; trad.]

Cyril Tawney sang the shipwreck ballad Bold Benjamin-O from The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs on the Topic anthology of sea songs and shanties, Farewell Nancy. Heather Wood and Royston Wood and Peter Bellamy sang Bold Benjamin-O on the former two's 1977 album No Relation. The sleeve notes comment laconically:

There must be a tremendous story behind this song—but the song doesn't tell it.

The Ian Campbell Folk Group sang The Bold Benjamin in 1967 on their Transatlantic album New Impressions.

Graham Pirt sang this song as Admiral Cole in 1975 on Alistair Anderson's Topic / Free Reed record Concertina Workshop. A.L. Lloyd commented in the album's liner notes:

Who was Admiral Cole? What sort of ship was the ‘Benjamin’? When did the disaster happen? The ballad is full of mysteries. It first appeared on a broadside of c.1670. The admiral is not mentioned; instead the song begins “Captain Chilver's gone to sea”. A headnote on the broadside tells us that the ballad is “a brief narrative of one of his Majestie's ships called the Benjamin, that was drove into harbour of Plymouth, and received no small harm by this tempest”. No ship called the ‘Benjamin’ can be found in the Navy lists of Charles II's time, nor do the Plymouth records of the time confirm any event of this kind described. Still, the song is a fine old example of a shipwreck ballad. If it's wrong in detail, it's right enough in generality.

Ian Giles sang Admiral Cole in 1997 on his WildGoose CD The Amber Triangle. He noted:

I heard this many years ago in the bar at Towersey Festival but the identity of the singer still remains a mystery to me (thanks all the same!). A tragic seafaring ballad, it has found a firm place in my repertoire ever since that first hearing.

Alasdair Roberts sang Admiral Cole on his 2005 CD No Earthly Man.

And Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick recorded Bold Benjamin for their 2006 album Straws in the Wind. Martin Carthy commented in their sleeve notes:

I think that anyone who has even a passing interest in sea shanties would truly bust a gut to know what such songs sounded like before the advent of the clipper ships and their like—simply because songs were inevitably recycled to suit the new need. I think that it's true that nothing is much older than perhaps 150 years in that most functional of all folk musics. A.L. Lloyd quotes C.H. Firth of the Navy Records Society writing in 1908 wondering aloud whether the form of Bold Benjamin suggested an earlier existence as a shanty. Tantalising. The song itself is one of these small jewels tucked away among the many songs of naval triumph to be found in our traditional song but which instead records one of the utter disasters. According to Lloyd there is apparently no record of the engagement nor the luckless gent who brought such misfortune upon his men. Whether he was Brave Admiral Cole, as in the song, or one Captain Chilvers in an earlier—and in many ways quite different—version from 1670 printed in the Roxburghe Ballads, to have lost 439 out of 500 counts, I think, as a calamity. It's one clever tune too, in the way it plays with the accent on the repeated lines.

Vic Shepherd and Sheafknot sang The Bold Benjamin in 2015 on her and John Bowden's Hallamshire Traditions CD Still Waters. They noted:

This song seems to derive from a late 17th century broadside ballad with the snappy title The Benjamin's lamentation for their sad loss at sea by storms and tempests: being a brief narrative of one of his Majesty's ships, call'd, the Benjamin, that was drove into harbour at Plimouth, and received no small harm by this tempest, in which the Captain's name is Chilvers. This version comes from The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, which states that the source singer, a Mr Taunton from Corscombe, Devon, learned it from “a Man-o-War’s man” in 1950.

At the monthly Sheffield Ballad Sessions we usually keep a ‘head count’ of deaths described in the songs—and this one usually wins hands down (closely followed by The Banks of Newfoundland).

Andy Turner sang The Bold Benjamin as the 8 October 2015 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week.

Sound Tradition sang Bold Benjamin in 2017 on their CD Well Met, My Friend. They noted:

First appearing c.1670 on a broadside, there's a fair bit of mystery surrounding this tale of a disastrous shipwreck. There's no mention on an Admiral Cole in the original, brave or otherwise, and no record of a ship called the Benjamin from the reign of Charles II. It is nevertheless a fine ballad, with a jaunty tune that belies the high body count.


Martin Carthy sings Bold Benjamin-O

Brave Admiral Cole he's gone to sea, oh my boys-O
Admiral Cole he's gone to sea-O
Brave Admiral Cole he has gone to sea
Along of our ship's company
On board the bold Benjamin-O

We sail-ed our course away for Spain, oh my boys-O
Sailed our course away for Spain-O
Sail-ed our course away for Spain
Our silver and gold for to gain
On board the bold Benjamin-O

We sail-ed out five hundred men, oh my boys-O
Sailed out five hundred men-O
We sail-ed out five hundred men
And we brought back but sixty one
They were lost in bold Benjamin-O

And when we come to Blackwall, oh my boys-O
When we come to Blackwall-O
And when we come to Blackwall
Our captain so loudly did call
Here comes the bold Benjamin-O

Here's the mothers crying for their sons, oh my boys-O
The mothers crying for their sons-O
Here's the mothers crying for their sons
And the widows all for their husbands
That were lost in bold Benjamin-O


Lyrics taken from The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, ed. Ralph Vaughan Williams and A.L. Lloyd, Penguin, 1959:23, and adapted to the actual singing of Martin Carthy by Garry Gillard.