Shallow Brown | Folk from the Attic

‘Shallow Brown’ (Roud 2621) is a fascinating song for so many reasons. Is it a sea shanty? A slave song? Who is singing to who, and where in the world were they singing? There’s as much here to love as there is to be heart-broken by. Quite simply, another traditional folk song of fare-thee-wells and loved ones being transported over the sea that feels, in some ways, as prescient now as it ever must have done. 

Looking into the history of ‘Shallow Brown’, it seems one of the only things that various scholars can agree on is that it is indeed a sea shanty. Who the narrator is, and who they’re singing to, is the subject of varying arguments, but it seems to depict an incredibly lonely farewell, sung across the bow of a ship as it departs from a West Indies port. Aside from the simple power of the song itself, what particularly grabs me is its history. There’s a clear similarity to African-American slave songs, in both its subject and melody, and yet it was collected by various folk song collectors at a variety of locations around England.

According to the excellent Mainly Norfolk website, “H.E. Piggott and Percy Grainger collected Shallow Brown from the singing of John Perring of Dartmouth on January 18, 1908… Grainger himself commented: ‘Perring was a remarkably gifted deep-sea sailor songster and said that this song was supposed to be sung by a woman standing on the quay to Shallow Brown as his ship was weighing anchor. Perring did not know why Brown was called “Shallow”—“unless it was that he was shallow in his heart”, as he added.'”

Over at the Full English archive, Perring, Grainger and Piggott’s meeting is recorded here. Cecil Sharp collected at least four different versions – “a very curious shanty” – including one in London from singer George Conway (September 9, 1914 – registered here), and a version from John Short in Somerset (June 3, 1914 – registered here). Meanwhile, George Gardiner collected a version from one Frederick Fennemore, singing in Portsmouth Workhouse on August 30, 1907 (registered here).

In terms of modern recordings, everyone has had a go at it, from June Tabor to Norma Waterson & Eliza Carthy, from Martin Simpson to Peter Bellamy, from Jimmy Aldridge & Sid Goldsmith to The Young’uns. For any guitarists out there, my humble attempt is played in EADEAB tuning – a rewarding sound, but a bugger to keep in tune. The lyrics I’m using are an amalgamation of various versions, but may be closest to those sung by Aldridge & Goldsmith, taken from their sublime Night Hours album.

Shallow Brown lyrics

Fare-thee-well, I’m bound to leave you
Shallow, shallow brown
Fare-thee-well, I’m bound to leave you
Shallow, shallow brown

For my master, he’s bound to sell me
Shallow, shallow brown
For my master, he wants to sell me
Shallow, shallow brown

Sell me for the big dollar
Shallow, shallow brown
Sell me for the Yankee dollar
Shallow, shallow brown

Gonna ship onboard a whaler
Shallow, shallow brown
Gonna ship onboard a whaler
Shallow, shallow brown

Bound away for old St George’s
Shallow, shallow brown
Bound away for old St George’s
Shallow, shallow brown

So fare-thee-well my Julianna
Shallow, shallow brown
Fare-thee-well my Julianna
Shallow, shallow brown

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