There are several sea songs entitled “the Banks of Newfoundland”, not to be properly considered variations on the same melody, even if they share a common theme, the dangers of fishing or navigation offshore of Newfoundland, on the Great Banks
Oh, you may bless your happy lots, all ye who dwell on shore
“Banks of Newfoundland” tells the tragic story of a ship tormented by the hurricane and unable to maneuver, stuck on the Great Banks, the only hope left: the sighting of another ship for rescue!
And after more than fifteen days without provisions it remains only the “law of the sea” to give extreme support to the remaining men.
Margaret Christl &d Ian Robb from The Barley Grain for Me, 1976 ♪
comparing the variant collected in 1957 by Edith Fowke from the voice of O J Abbott of Ontario and published in The Penguin Book of Canadian Folk Songs (1973) (see text)
Oh, you may bless your happy lots (1),
all ye who dwell on shore,
For it’s little you know of the hardships that we poor seamen bore.
Yes, it’s little you know of the hardships that we were forced to stand
For fourteen days and fifteen night on the Banks of Newfoundland.
Our ship, she sailed through frost and snow from the day we left Quebec,
And if we had not walked about we’d have frozen to the deck.
But we being true-born sailor men as ever ship had manned
Our Captain, he doubled our grog each day on the Banks of Newfoundland.
Well, there never was a ship, me boys, that sailed the western waves,
But the billowy seas came a-rolling in and bent them into staves.
Our ship being built of unseasoned wood, it could but little stand,
The hurricane, it met us there on the Banks of Newfoundland.
Well, we fasted for thirteen days and nights, our provisions giving out,
On the morning of the fourteenth day, we cast our lines about (2).
Well, the lot, it fell on the Captain’s son (3), and thinking relief at hand,
We spared him for another night on the Banks of Newfoundland.
On the morning of the fifteenth day, no vessel did appear.
We gave to him another hour to offer up a prayer.
Well, Providence to us proved kind; kept blood from every hand (4),
For an English vessel hove in sight on the Banks of Newfoundland.
We hoisted aloft our signal; they bore down on us straightaway.
When they saw our pitiful condition, they began to weep and pray.
Five hundred souls we had on board when first we left the land
There’s now alive but seventy-five on the Banks of Newfoundland.
They took us off that ship, me boys; we was more like ghosts than men.
They fed us and they clothed us and brought us back again.
They fed us and they clothed us, and brought us straight to land.
While the billowy waves roll o’er the graves on the Banks of Newfoundland.
2) the one who pulled the shorter straw was the “winner”, and sacrificed himself for the good of the survivors, this practice was called “law of the sea”
3) a commonplace because in the ballads on cannibalism at sea it always touches to the young cabin boy
4) the juxtaposition between the two verses with the man ready for the sacrifice and sighting at dawn of the ship that will rescue them, wants to mitigate the harsh reality of cannibalism, a horrible practice to tell but that is always lurking in the moments of desperation and as an extreme resource for survival, see“The Ship in Distress”
Mabel Worcester 1967 from the University of Maine digital archive ♪