I Saw Three Ships
DESCRIPTION: (While sitting on a sunny bank,) the singer sees three ships arrive on Christmas. In the ship are (pretty girls) or Mary, (Joseph), and/or (Jesus). (They/all) (sing/whistle/rejoice) as they sail on to Bethlehem
EARLIEST DATE: 1666 (Forbes's Cantus)
KEYWORDS: religious Jesus nonballad ship
FOUND IN: Britain(England(Lond,West),Wales) US(Ap,MW,SE) Ireland
REFERENCES (16 citations):
Broadwood/Maitland, p. 111, "As I Sat on a Sunny Bank" (1 text, 1 tune)
OCroinin-Cronin 147, "The Bells of Heaven" (1 text, 1 tune)
OBB 104, "I Saw Three Ships" (1 text)
OBC 3, "Sunny Bank"; 18, "I Saw Three Ships" (2 texts, 2 tunes)
Combs/Wilgus 315, pp. 141-142, "Three Ships Came Sailing In" (1 text)
BrownII 53, "I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In" (1 fragment)
BrownSchinhanIV 53, "I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In" (2 excerpts, 2 tunes)
Ritchie-Southern, p. 43, "I Saw Three Ships" (1 text, 1 tune)
Gardner/Chickering 152, "As I Sat on the Sunny Bank" (1 text)
Rickert, pp. 213-214, "I Saw Three Ships"; p. 255, "As I Sat under a Sycamore Tree" (2 texts)
Opie-Oxford2 471, "I saw three ships come sailing by" (2 texts)
Baring-Gould-MotherGoose #331, pp. 180-181, "(I saw three ships come sailing by)"
Jack, p. 252, "I Saw Three Ships" (1 text)
Silber-FSWB, p. 379, "I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In" (1 text)
ADDITIONAL: Ian Bradley, _The Penguin Book of Carols_ (1999), #35, "I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In" (1 text)
ST OBB104 (Full)
Elizabeth Cronin, "The Bells of Heaven" (on IRECronin01)
Bodleian, Douce adds. 137(22), "The Sunny Bank," T. Bloomer (Birmingham), 1821-1827; also Harding B 7(38), Harding B 7(30), Harding B 7(37), Harding B 7(35), "As I Sat on a Sunny Bank" ("As I sat on a sunny bank")[some have no title]; Harding B 7(16), "The Sunny Bank"
cf. "Glasgow Ships" (some lines, but not the tune)
As I Sat Under a Sycamore Tree
NOTES: It probably need not be pointed out that there is no Biblical basis for this story, and that Bethlehem is nowhere near the ocean nor any body of water large enough for any kind of ship.
This makes it worthwhile to ask, Which version is older? There are secular and Christmas versions. The "Christmas" version is the one now widely sung, and the Combs version (the only one I think that's traditional in America) is a religious text -- but two of Gomme's three versions are secular. Similarly, the Opie version is set on New Year's day, and lists three pretty girls as passengers. On the other hand, several texts refer to "Our Savior Christ and His Lady." This sounds very Catholic -- and hence probably old -- to me.
(I do note that the new year at one time was held to take place on March 25, the day Jesus was conceived, but I don't see a hint of a connection in the song.)
Ian Bradley, in the Penguin Book of Carols, raises the question of why three ships are needed to bring two passengers -- in his version, Jesus and Mary. This is logical, but the likely answer is that the original included Joseph as well, but he was later written out or accidentally dropped. Bradley, though, has an explanation: That three ships sailed in because they were bearing the relics of the three Magi, or perhaps the Magi themselves. Of course, the Bible nowhere says that there were three Magi.
Personally, I'd guess that three is simply an auspicious number. Sure, one ship could carry Jesus and his mother, but three ships gives him an escort -- with the other two ships representing the other two persons of the Trinity. - RBW
Also see Calennig, "Sandy Banks" (on Callenig, "A Gower Garland," Wild Goose WGS 299 CD (2000)). The notes have it noted in Wales by Rev J.D. Davies in 1877. Just two ships here. - BS
OCroinin-Cronin has the form and "Christmas day in the morning" in common with "I Saw Three Ships" but has none of the usual lines.
OCroinin-Cronin: "The bells of heaven began to ring... The bells of hell began to blow... The gates of heaven were dressed in white... The gates of hell were dressed in black... I'll buy for you a little red book... I'll send you up to school to heaven...."
My inclination is to split OCroinin-Cronin from the rest of Roud #700 but sources frequently refer to a 1794 Ritson citation in Scottish Songs that link the "bells of heaven" to "I Saw Three Ships." I don't have the 1794 edition but, from the 1869 edition: "[an] Aberdeen collection, printed in 1666, contains many songs of a much earlier period.... At the end of the same publications are three singular compositions ... which are conjectured to have been sung by peasants in the Christmas holidays before the Reformation; the music is a church chant [f: ... Our Lord harped, our lady sang, And all the bells of heaven they rang, On Christ's sunday at morn" (Ritson,Scottish Songs (Glasgow: Hugh Hopkins, 1869 ("Digitized by Google")) Vol. I p. 99). - BS
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