The Longest Song Wiki

A traditional song with a written record dating to 1769. This is an exceedingly well known folk song, performed by nearly every folk singer in the past century in one form or another.

Spanish Ladies is ninth track on Between Wind and Water.

Factoids

This song describes the passage of ship through the English Channel, the last stretch before coming home after a long voyage. It mentions all the manoeuvres and landmarks along the way, so it is filled with nautical terms. A map of the journey can be found here.

The entrance to the Channel is marked by Ushant, the furthest western point of France, and the Isles of Scilly, the furthest western point of England. The distance between these is 35 leagues, or about 190 km (a league is 3 nautical miles, a nautical mile is 1.8km).

The crew knows that they have reached the entrance when they strike soundings, without seeing either island. This means that they heave to, which is a manoeuvre to reduce speed of the ship to almost zero. Then they throw out a long line with a lead weight to measure (sound) the depth of the water. When they measure a depth of 45 fathoms, about 80m (a fathom is 6ft or 1.8m), which is less than at open sea, the crew knows they have reached the Channel. Then they put their sails perpendicular to the boat (“squared our main yard”) to sail down the south-westerly breeze.

Next, the song describes the important landmarks (cliffs, capes and lighthouses) that the crew uses to navigate. Deadman is a reference to Dodman Point near Mevagissey. Rame Head is a coastal headland off of Cornwall, near the village of Rame. Next, they pass Plymouth, Portland, and the Isle of Wight. Beachy refers to Beachy Head, near Eastbourne. However, there is no 'Fairlee', fairly, or fairleigh that lies between Beachy Head and Dungeness lighthouse. This most likely refers to Fairlight. The south Foreland Lighthouse, the last marker, lies just east of the famed White Cliffs of Dover.

Finally, the ship reaches The Downs, a well known ship anchorage where the English Channel meets the North Sea off of the coast of Deal in Kent. The song describes how they throw out their anchor: Stoppers and Shank Painters are both slang terms for mechanical parts that secure the anchor. Clewgarnets are ropes by which the clews of the sails are hauled up to the lower yards and letting the sheets fly stops the boat: they’re at their destination!

Of course the end of the journey has to be celebrated: a bumper was a leather jug or bladder whichcontained liquor, but became fast slang for any glass or jug from which one drank.

Note: as most folk songs, Spanish Ladies has multiple versions with plenty of variations. Two noteworthy ones are: “Twas 45 fathoms with a white sandy bottom” instead of “We rounded and sounded, got fourty five fathoms” – Instead of only measuring depth, sounding can also include taking ground samples, as an extra means of navigation. “Next Rame Head off Plymouth, Start, Portland, and Wight” instead of “Next Rame Head off Plymoth, off Portland the Wight” – Start is another important landmark that seems to have disappered from the lyrics.

Lyrics

These lyrics are based on the version performed by the Longest Johns on their album, Between Wind and Water. The original lyrics can be found here.

Farewell and adieu to you, Spanish ladies,
Farewell and adieu to you, to you ladies of Spain;
For we've received orders for the sail for old England,
But we hope very soon we shall see you again.

{Chorus}
We'll rant and we'll roar like true British sailors,
We'll rant and we'll roar all on the salt seas;
Until we strike soundings in the Channel of old England:
From Ushant to Scilly it's thirty-five leagues.

We hove our ship to, with the wind at sou'-west, boys,
We hove our ship to, our soundings to see;
We rounded and sounded, got fourty five fathoms,
Then we squared our main yard and up channel steered we

{Chorus}

The next land we made t'was called the Deadman,
Next Rame Head off Plymoth, off Portland the Wight
Then we sailed by Beachy, by Fairlee and Dungeness,
'til we came abreast of the South Foreland light.

{Chorus}

Then the signal was made for the Grand Fleet to anchor,
All in the Downs that night for to lie;
Then it's stand by your stoppers, steer clear your shank-painters,
Haul up your clew garnets, let tacks and sheets fly!

So let every man toss off a full bumper,
and let every man drink up a full glass;
We'll drink and be merry and drown melancholy,
singing here's a good health to each true-hearted lass!
{Chorus til finish}