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The Flying Cloud

[ Roud 1802 ; Laws K28 ; G/D 1:44 ; Ballad Index LK28 ; DT FLYCLOUD ; Mudcat 54665 ; trad.]

Ewan MacColl sang The Flying Cloud in 1954/5 on his and A.L. Lloyd’s Topic LP The Singing Sailor; this track was also included six years later on their American LP on the Stinson label, Haul on the Bowlin’ and in 2004 on the anthology CD Sailors’ Songs & Sea Shanties.

Louis Killen recorded The Flying Cloud in 1965 for his Topic album Ballads & Broadsides. This recording was also included in 1993 on the Topic compilation CD Blow the Man Down. Angela Carter commented in the liner notes of Killen’s album:

There was nothing of the rakish, jolly, romantic pirate of pantomime and nursery lore about the real lives of the brutal criminals of the high seas who flourished in the early nineteenth century and before. Despite its beautiful name, The Flying Cloud was such a pirate vessel, if not in reality—for no records has come to light of a pirate ship called The Flying Cloud—then in the imagination of scores of traditional singers. This harsh and violent ballad, cast in the form of a confession from the gallows, depicts the worst of piracy on the Atlantic and the Caribbean in the early 1800s, when piracy and the slave trade often went hand in bloody hand. Doerflinger (Shantymen and Shantyboys, New York, 1951) suggests the ballad-makers were originally inspired by a pamphlet, The Dying Declaration of Nicholas Fernandez, the purported confession of a notorious pirate on the eve of his execution in 1829—curiously enough, published as a temperance tract. The song is widely known in North America as well as in Britain. In Nova Scotia, the collector Elizabeth Greenleaf observed the tremendous emotional impact it made on audiences at singing gatherings in the nineteen twenties. At one time, it was an especial favourite with landlubbers in Canadian lumber camps. Most versions are broadly similar in text and tune.

Louis Killen recorded The Flying Cloud for a second time in 1970 on his South Street Seaport Museum album 50 South to 50 South. He noted:

This “confession” ballad was well-known on the Cape Horn square-riggers but was also a firm favourite on fishing schooners sailing out of northeast ports of America to fish the Grand Banks. I had occasion, during a concert given on Pier 16 at South Street Seaport, to talk with one of the audience, a fisherman on the scallop boat moored close by. He hailed from Gloucester, Massachusetts, and as a boy and young man had sailed on schooners out of that port. He knew most of the songs and chanties sung at the concert, and during the course of the conversation swapped verse for verse many other forebitters including the above ballad.

Louis Killen also recorded The Flying Cloud in 1995 for his CD Sailors, Ships & Chanteys, and sang it in 2004 at the 25th Annual Sea Music Festival at Mystic Seaport.

Roy Bailey learned The Flying Cloud from The Singing Island, edited by Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl, and sang it in 1976 on his album New Bell Wake.

Dave Burland sang Edward Hollander (The Flying Cloud) in 1979 on his album You Can’t Fool the Fat Man. His version is from Stan Hugill’s Sea Shanties

Tom Brown sang The Flying Cloud in 2000 on his and Barbara Brown’s WildGoose CD Where Umber Flows. He noted:

One of the great sea-ballads—the words of which had been going round in my brain for years. However, we just couldn’t settle happily with any of the tunes to which variants had been collected. Then, in the 1970s, the Bullockies and Bushwackers band came to England from Australia and brought with them a newly-penned tune, by the Australian singer Mick Slocum, for the deportation song Jim Jones. His tune and this Newfoundland text of The Flying Cloud just came together—I think it’s a happy marriage.

John Roberts and Tony Barrand sang The Flying Cloud on their 2000 CD of songs of the North Atlantic sailing packets, Across the Western Ocean. They noted:

The legend of the “Flying Dutchman” is a common one in many European countries, and its story has been used in novel, melodrama, opera and movie. In the most common British version, Vanderdecken, a Dutch sea captain, angered by continually adverse winds, swears a blasphemous oath (“by all the devils”) that he will double the Cape of Good Hope if it takes him till Doomsday. For this profanity he is condemned by God or Devil (it is never clear which) to his self-appointed fate. His ghost ship is rarely seen, and then only in stormy seas, beating in against the wind under full sail and bad luck to the ship which sights her. This latter ship, itself often becalmed, is sometimes entrusted with letters addressed to people long dead.

Although in the British melodramas the curse is absolute, in other versions Vanderdecken is allowed on shore every seven years, in hopes of breaking his curse by wooing a lady who will be faithful to him unto death. In Wagner’s opera, for example, he manages to achieve this salvation.

In the German legend the protagonist, von Falkenberg, is condemned to sail the North Sea in a ship with no helm or steersman, playing dice with the Devil for his soul. According to Sir Walter Scott, the “Flying Dutchman” was a bullion ship aboard of which a murder was committed. The plague subsequently broke out among the crew, and all ports were closed to the ill-fated craft.

The only recent printed source for the song seems to be Doerflinger, who obtained his set from Richard Maitland, then retired at Sailor’s Snug Harbor, New York. Broadside variants are to be found in the Harvard Library. A song of the “Flying Dutchman” was sung on the stage in New York, and printed in several early songsters there. Our version comes from a singer in a folk club in Manchester, and is generally similar to Doerflinger’s.

Terry Yarnell sang The Flying Cloud in 2001 on his Tradition Bearers CD A Bonny Bunch. He noted:

Although slavery is an important issue in our history, the subject is conspicuous by its absence in our traditional songs. This song helps to redress the balance by being particularly graphic in its treatment of the subject while also covering piracy and giving a full account of a man’s life from a child to the gallows. Although it probably dates from the early part of the nineteenth Century, it didn’t appear in print until the beginning of the twentieth. It appears in many American and Sea Song collections, and seems to have been immensely popular.

Much research has failed to find any historical basis for the story.

Chris Foster sang The Flying Cloud in 2003 on his Tradition Bearers CD Traces. He noted:

A brutally stark confession of slave trading and piracy, concluding with a warning from the condemned cell.

Sean Doyle sang The Flying Cloud on his 2004 CD The Light and the Half-Light. He noted:

This ballad first came to my notice from the singing of Phil Callery at a Fleadh in Carrick, Co. Donegal. I think it is the only Irish ballad I know of that mentions the subject of slavery and deals with it in a sympathetic manner.

Martin Simpson sang The Flying Cloud in 2005 on his Topic CD Kind Letters. He commented in his liner notes:

I learned these songs in many cases from a number of different sources. I first heard The Flying Cloud sung at Scunthorpe Folk Club in the late ’60s. Roy Bailey’ excellent […] record […] provided me with the basic text and Martin Carthy furnished further versions from his library which I assembled [into] this version. The song is truly the equal of a blockbuster movie. Roy points out that the unfortunate Arthur Hollandene is to die for crimes against commerce and property and his expressed regret for this part in slaving does not seem to be shared by the authorities.

Pete Wood sang The Flying Cloud on his 2014 CD Young Edwin. He noted:

The exemplar of sea ballads, sung by many in the Revival, notably by Louis Killen (RIP).

Jim Moray sang The Flying Cloud in 2016 on his CD Upcetera. He commented in his sleeve notes:

I learned this from Chris Foster’s recording on his CD Traces, and the version on Ballads & Broadsides by Lou Killen. So much conflicting emotion is wrapped up in just 14 verses.


Louis Killen sings The Flying Cloud

My name is William Hollander, as you will understand
I was born in the County of Waterford, in Erin’s lovely land,
When I was young and in my prime, a beauty on me shone,
And my parents doted upon me, I being their only son.

My father bound me to a trade in Waterford’s fair town,
He bound me to a cooper there by the name of William Brown.
I served my master faithfully for seven long years or more
Till I shipped aboard The Ocean Queen belonging to Tramore.

And soon we reached Bermuda’s isle where I met with Captain Moore,
The commander of the Flying Cloud from out of Baltimore,
He asked me if I’d ship with him on a slaving voyage to go,
To the burning shores of Africa, where the sugar cane does grow.

It was after some weeks of sailing we arrived off Africa’s shore,
Five hundred of them poor slaves, me boys, from their native land we bore.
We marched them up upon a plank and stowed them down below,
Scarce eighteen inches to a man was all they had to go.

Then the plague and the fever came on board, swapped half of them away.
We dragged their bodies up on deck and hove them in the sea,
It was better for the rest of them if they had died below
Than to work beneath the cruel planters in Cuba for evermore.

For it was after some stormy weather, boys, we arrived off Cuba shore
And we sold them to the planters there to be slaves for evermore,
For the rice and coffee seed to sow beneath the brilliant sun
And to lead a lone and wretched life till their career was run.

Well it’s now our money is all spent, we must go to sea again,
When Captain Moore comes on the deck and says unto us men,
“There’s gold and silver to be had if with me you’ll remain,
We’ll hoist the pirate flag aloft and scour the Spanish Main.”

We all agreed but three young men who were told us then to land.
Two of them were Boston boys, the other from New Foundland,
But I wish to God I joined those men and went with them on shore
Than to lead a wild and reckless life serving under a Captain Moore.

The Flying Cloud was a Yankee ship, five hundred tons or more,
She could outsail any clipper ship hailing out of Baltimore,
With her canvas white as the driven snow and on it there’s no specks,
And forty men and fourteen guns she carried below her decks.

For we sacked and plundered many a ship down upon the Spanish Main,
Caused many a widow and orphan in sorrow to remain.
To the crews we gave no quarter but gave them watery graves,
For the saying of our captain was: “Dead men will tell no tales.”

And pursued we were by many a ship, by frigates and liners too,
Till at last, the British man-o-war, the Dungeness, hove in view,
She fired a shot across our bows as we sailed before the wind,
Till a chain-shot cut our mainmast down and we fell far behind.

How our crew they beat to quarters as they ranged up alongside,
Soon across our quarter-deck there ran a crimson tide.
We fought till Captain Moore was killed and fifteen of our men,
Till a bombshell set our ship on fire, we had to surrender then.

So it’s now to Newgate we were brought, bound down in iron chains,
For the sinking and the plundering of ships on the Spanish Main.
The judge he found us guilty, we were condemned to die.
Oh young men, a warning by me take, lead not such a life as I.

So it’s fare you well, old Waterford and the girl I do adore,
I’ll never kiss your cheek again, I’ll squeeze your hand no more,
Oh whiskey and bad company first made a wretch of me,
Oh young men, a warning by me take and shun all piracy.

John Roberts and Tony Barrand sings The Flying Cloud

’Twas on a dark and cheerless night to the southern of the Cape,
When from a strong nor’wester we had just made our escape,
Like an infant in its cradle, all hands lay fast asleep,
And peacefully we sailed along in the bosom of the deep.

Just then the watchman gave a shout of terror and of fear,
As if he had just gazed upon some sudden danger near,
The sea all round was cloud and foam, and just upon our lee,
We saw the Flying Dutchman come a-bounding o’er the sea.

“Take in our lofty canvas, lads,” the watchful master cried,
“For in our ship’s company some sudden danger lies,
For every man who rounds the Cape, although he knows no fear,
He knows that there is danger when Vanderdecken ’s near.”

Pity poor Vanderdecken, forever is his doom,
The seas around that stormy Cape will be his living tomb,
He’s doomed to ride the ocean for ever and a day,
And he tries in vain his oath to keep by entering Table Bay.

All hands to the rail, our gallant crew, as the ghost ship bore to sea,
Our hearts were filled with awe and fear, as she passed along our lee,
The helmsman was likewise entranced, and as all hands sighed relief,
With rending crash and mortal force our vessel struck a reef.

Chris Foster sings The Flying Cloud

My name is William Hollander as you shall understand
I was born in the county of Waterford in Erin’s lovely land.
When I was sixteen years of age, a beauty upon me shone
and I was my parents pride and joy, I being their only son.

My father bound me to a trade in Waterford’s fair town.
He bound me to a butcher there by the name of Billy Brown.
And I wore the bloody apron for three long years or more,
until I shipped on board the Ocean Queen, belonging to Tremore.

When we arrived at Bermuda’s Isle I met with Captain Moore,
the commander of the Flying Cloud from out of Baltimore.
And he asked me if I’d sail with him on a slaving voyage to go,
to the balmy shores of Africa where the sugar cane do grow.

All went well ’til we arrived off Africa’s burning shores.
Where five hundred of those poor slaves from their native homes we tore.
We chained them up together and we forced them down below,
where scarce eighteen inches to a man was all they had to show.

And then the plague and the fever came on board and took half of them away
We dragged their bodies up on deck and we flung them in the seas.
You know I thought it might have been better for the rest of them if they had died as well,
not to wear the chains nor to feel the lash in Cuba for ever more.

Well it is now our money is all gone and we must sail again.
Captain Moore come up on deck and he said unto us men
“There is gold and silver to be had if with me you’ll remain.
We will hoist the pirate flag aloft and go scour the Spanish Main.”

All agreed but three young men, so we put them on the shore.
Two of them were Boston boys and the third came from Baltimore.
Now I wish to God I’d joined those men, when they were set on shore,
but I chose a wild and a reckless life, serving under Captain Moore.

Well we robbed and we plundered many’s the ship down on the Spanish Main.
Causing many’s the widow and orphan in sorrow to remain.
But to the crews we showed no quarter. We gave them a watery grave.
For the saying of our Captain is that dead men tell no tails.

Pursued we were by many’s the ship, by frigate and liner too.
Until at length a man o’ war the Dungeness hove in view.
We fought ’til Captain Moore was slain and twenty of our men.
But then a chain shot tore our main mast down and we were forced to surrender then.

So it is now in Newgate Gaol I lie, bound down in iron chains,
for robbing and a plundering ships down on the Spanish Main.
The judge he found us guilty. Now I am condemned to die.
Young men a warning by me take and lead not such a life as I.

So it’s fare thee well to Waterford and the girls that I adored.
I’ll never kiss your ruby lips nor squeeze your hands no more.
For it is drinking and bad company that have made a wretch of me.
Young men a warning by me take and shun all piracy.