American folk song inspired by convict ships
by Robert A. Waters
Before 1776, Great Britain used the colonies in America to dump convicted pick-pockets, thieves, robbers, and murderers. Starting about 1620, thousands of prisoners came to this country on convict ships. After the states won independence, the British looked elsewhere to get rid of their unwanted riff-raff.
Van Diemen’s Land, now Australia, offered a faraway place to send English and Irish prisoners considered incorrigible. In 1786, the first convict ships landed there. From then until 1868, when the practice ended, more than 165,000 prisoners were transported to Van Diemen's Land.
Conditions on the ships defied imagination. Convicts, housed below decks in locked airless cages, wore balls and chains at all times. Branding, lashing, and beatings were common. Not surprisingly, many died of disease and brutal treatment.
Any major event is likely to be documented in folk songs of the day. The convict ships were no exception. In the 1790s, one such song called “The Black Velvet Band” became popular in Ireland. Several different broadsides containing the lyrics are on display in the Bodleian library at Oxford University.
The song soon immigrated to the United States. American musicians quickly adapted the words of the Irish folk song to the new world.
The first known version of the song to be recorded was by Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. Titled “The Girl in the Blue Velvet Band,” the record was made in 1949. The song quickly became a staple of bluegrass and country singers. As with all good folk songs, the words change slightly from singer to singer, but the tragic story remains the same.
One night while out for a ramble,
The hour was just about nine,
I met a young maiden in Frisco
On the corner of Cherry and Pine.
On her face there was beauty of nature
And her eyes just seemed to expand.
Her hair was so rich and so brilliant
Entwined in a blue velvet band.
We strolled down the street together,
In my pocket she placed her small hand.
She planted the evidence on me,
The girl in the blue velvet band.
I heard the scream of the siren
And the girl in the blue velvet band,
She left me to face all the trouble
With a diamond that was worth ten grand.
They sent me to San Quentin for stealing,
God knows I'm an innocent man.
The guilty one now she lies dying,
The girl in the blue velvet band.
Last night when bed-time was ringing,
Standing there close to the bars,
I fancied I heard a voice calling
Far out in the ocean of stars.
I'll be out in a year and I'm leaving,
But I'll carry the name of a man
That served ten years in prison
For the girl in the blue velvet band.
And when I get out I'll endeavor
To live in some other land,
And I'll bid farewell to old Frisco
And the girl in the blue velvet band.
The original Irish song is not so different from the American version. Here's the first verse:
One day, being out on a ramble,
Alone by myself I did stray,
I met with a young gay deceiver,
While cruising in Ratcliffe Highway.
Her eyes were as black as a raven,
I thought her the pride of the land.
Her hair that did hang o'er her shoulders
Was tied with a black velvet band.
In this version, the "gay deceiver" places a stolen watch in the unfortunate tradesman's pocket. Presumably, she wishes to retrieve it later. But her patsy is convicted of theft and sentenced to seven years at hard labor in the penal colonies of Australia.
The last verse reads:
So come all ye jolly young fellows,
I'll have ye take warning from me.
Whenever you're out on the liquor,
Beware of them pretty colleens.
They'll treat you to whiskey and porter,
Till you are not able to stand;
And the very next thing that you know, my lads,
You'll end up in Van Dieman's land.
Many of our great folk songs began their journey in other countries. "The Girl in the Blue Velvet Band" is no exception.