Why does Dylan like The Golden Vanity?

Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood

The Golden Vanity is one of those folk songs that has multiple names – it is often called “The Sweet Trinity” and also “The Golden Willow Tree”.

The song originated in the 17th century as “Sir Walter Raleigh Sailing in the Lowlands,” and then as is the way of such songs, gradually developed into a set of variations.However the theme throughout has been of a ship called the Sweet Trinity which is captured but survives because of the wit of a cabin boy who in many versions is betrayed by the captain who fails to keep his promise.In simple terms the ship is threatened by a ship of the enemy fleet, and the captain is at a loss as to what to do about it.  So the valiant cabin boy offers to swim over to the enemy vessel and drill holes in its side so it gradually sinks.  But then himself is left without reward or indeed is killed by the perfidious captain.Here is a contemporary version…


In the variations the ship can be the Sweet Trinity or Golden Vanity or Golden Willow Tree.   Sir Walter Raleigh can be part of the tale too.  Where the song is heard in America the enemy is the British, in British versions the enemy is French or Spanish.

Where the cabin boy gets back to his ship he is betrayed by the captain and so the valiant cabin boy drowns – thus revealing the nature of all those in authority – which usually goes down well with the audience of such folk tales, and indeed is something that normally appeals to Bob Dylan.

In some variations the cabin boy is promised to the sister of the captain, or indeed of Sir Walter Raleigh, but as ever, the promise is not kept.

Here’s Bob Dylan’s live version


Dylan’s love of the traditional songs of America is of course well documented, as his support of the musical work of Woodie Gutherie testifies.  This version uses the offers of gold and the daughter as a reward for the sinking of the ship.   But the whole performance remains surprisingly low key, given the possibilities that the song itself offers.

In a second version by Bob Dylan, the song is played a semitone higher, at a faster speed and with a lot more vigour seems to do the subject matter more justice.


What I think particularly attracted Bob Dylan to the song is the variety of people who had also tried the song along with the traditional themes.

The Dylan chords site has the comment that Bob was drunk when he recorded this, given the way he stumbles over the lyrics, but they have done us the service of transcribing the lyrics.

There was a little ship
and it sailed along the sea
and the name of the ship was the golden vanity
and she sailed in the low and lonesome ocean
and she sailed in the lonesome sea.

There was another ship sailing along the sea
and the name of that ship was the Turkish Revelry
and sailing down that low and lonesome ocean
saling in the lonesome sea

There was a cabin boy he said what would you give to me
if I swim alongside of the Turkish Revelr
and sink her in the low and lonesome ocean
if I sink her in the lonesome sea

Well, I will give you gold and I will give you land
and my own lovely daughter she'll be at your command
if you sink her in the low and lonesome ocean
if you sink her in the lonesome sea

He bowed his breath, overboard jumped he
and he swum 'til he came to the Turkish Revelry
sailing in the low and lonesome ocean
sailing in the lonesome sea

He had a little tool, an augur meant to bore
and drilled nine holes in that ship's floor
then he sunk it the low and lonesome ocean
he sunk it in the lonesome sea

And he bowed his breath, back swam he
and he swum 'til he came to the Golden Vanity
sailing in the low and lonesome ocean
sailing in the lonesome sea

O' captain will you be as good as your word
and throw down a line and take me up on board
I'm sinking in that low and lonesome ocean
sinking in that lonesome sea

No, I'll not be as good as my word
I'll not throw down a line or to take you back on board
You'll gonna sink in that low and lonesome ocean
Sink in that lonesome sea

If it wasn't for the love that I have onto your men
I would do onto you like I done onto them
I'd sink you in the low and lonesome ocean
Sink you in that lonesome sea

So he bowed his breath and down went he
He swam til he came to pass down with [...]
and he sunk in that low and lonesome ocean
He sunk in that lonesome sea

To get a feeling of just how many variations there are of this song here is a version by the Carter family.

Pete Seeger really did get to grips with it however, making the lyrics clear and keeping the time

I think we can also understand Bob’s interest in the song in that it is so singable – performing this is just great fun because it offers so many possibilties.  And there is always the feeling that one is singing a song that has been sung across over 300 years.

There is an index to many of the other songs included in the “Why does Dylan like” series.

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