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In Search of Rebecca Young
The Quest for the Female Rambling Sailor: Eric DeBeck
Female Rambling Sailor

I first came across "Female Rambling Sailor" in a live performance by Bob Dylan in Seattle, Washington in 1992. By then he had been performing for almost 4 years on what has come to be called the "Never Ending Tour", sometimes doing 90 to 100 shows a year. The tour continues even to this day. Interspersed among adaptations of his own works (sometimes unrecognizable) were covers of songs by other songwriters as well as "traditional" ones. One of the most well-known of these traditional songs was Barbara Allen. One of the most obscure was FRS.

I have been fascinated by these "covers" Dylan done over his 30 odd year career. It has become my hobby of sorts to collect anything printed or recorded on many of these songs. This usually means any reference to a song as to its origins or its history, the music script or tabular and recordings from which Dylan may have discovered the song himself. A monumental task, not only for the time and effort spent or keeping track (keeping records) but also because Dylan continues to throw more and more of these "covers" out to his audiences. In the current leg of his "Never Ending Tour" he has given us "Shake Sugaree" and "New Minglewood Blues". If I had one question to ask Dylan it would be something like this : "Where or how do you come across some of this songs, especially 'Female Rambling Sailor'?"

As you may have guessed, finding anyting on "Barbara Allen " was relatively easy. FRS proved to be difficult. But, off and on over 4 years, with hunches, long shots, phone calls, faxes, regular and electronic mail, posting to news groups and searches on the Internet (but above all persistance) I have succeeded in locating 10 recordings and about a dozen locations where one can find a "broadside" version.

Dylan has only performed FRS 6 times. The dates, locations and venues are as folows :

March 21, 1992    Adelaide    Entertainment Centre
March 24, 1992    Sydney      State Theatre
April  3, 1992    Melbourne   Palais Theatre
April  5, 1992    Melbourne   Palais Theatre
April 28, 1992    Seattle     Paramount Theatre
August 27, 1992   Toronto     Massey Hall

With a bit of effort I'm sure I could locate recordings of all 6 of these performances.

My first research tool is Florence E. Brunnings "Folk Song Index". But there was no listing. About a year later, knowing I was going to be in Ottawa in a week of so, I gave the Music Reference Division of the National Library of Canada a telephone call. I gave them what information I had which only amounted to a transcription of the lyrics from one of Dylan's performances. To my surprise I received a return call just a couple of hours later. They had in their collection Ian Robb's version of FRS on his "Rose and Crown". They promised to put it aside for me. When I was there they played it for me. It was on a vinyl pressing which they played on a turntable with a "laser needle". A booklet accompanied the LP. The notes about FRS included that Ian Robb had learned it from Martyn Wyndham-Read and that Martyn had "found it in Australia". This discography in the booklet lists Martyn Wyndham-Read's release "Harry the Hawker Is Dead" which includes a recording of FRS. Ian Robb also mentions that he had "taken the liberty of filling in the gap" because it "seemed to be missing a couple of lines" (these were added in the third verse).

I asked the staff at the National Library of Canada where I might locate a copy of "Rose and Crown" to purchase. They suggested the Ottawa Folklore Centre. They were very helpful there as well. Not only where they able to provide me with a copy of "Rose and Crown" but they were also able to provide me with Ian Robb's address and phone number in Ottawa and another recording that had just been release by Three Sheets to the Wind on "Grace Under Pressure".

I eventually spoke with Ian Robb on the telephone. He checked his original notes and confirmed that Martyn Wyndham-Read had found it in Australia. These notes also mentioned the Bush Music Club. These clues plus the fact that Dylan had first performed (and mostly performed) FRS in Australia led me to believe the it had at least some Australian origins.

Ian Robb was also kind enough to send me a taped copy of Martyn Wyndham-Read's "Harry the Hawker Is Dead".

3 found and 7 more to discover!

With the above clues I set about getting in touch with the National Library of Australia and the Bush Music Club (in Sydney, I think). Surprisingly, the Library was unsuccessful in finding anything - no recording and no published (printed) account of it. I never received a response from the Bush Music Club.

It was about this time as well that I finally obtained limited access to the Internet via a freenet account through a local community network. I posted to the news-groups "" and "". 4 more recordings where located with the help of respondents to my "posts" : Rude Girls, Rude Awakening; William Pint & Felicia Dale, Port of Dreams; Sally Barker & the Rhythm, Beating the Drum; and, more recently, Rich Lerner, Trails and Bridges. Still, no one had been able to come up with any printed information on its history or origins beyond what was provided with these recordings.

Then, on a hunch or a long shot - or even an act of frustration - I was flipping through an edition of the folk music magazine "Sing Out!" when I discovered a column titled "Songfinder". It is a reader-assisted song search service overseen by Holly Tannen. I wrote to her immediately with all the information I had to date. Within a few months she had not only listed the request in the column but also posted a request on the newsgroup. The outcome of all that was the reference to FRS in Dianne Dugaw's "Warrior Women and Popular Balladry". I was fortunate to find a copy of it in my own local university library. It appeared as if Dianne Dugaw had found more than a few references to FRS in research for her dissertation. Though she had written "Warrior Women" while at the University of Colorado I was able to locate her at the University of Oregon through the "National Faculty Directory" and her e-mail address through "World's Phone Books" which I gather is an electronic directory of academic faculty. I corresponded with her and eventually visited with her in her office at the University of Oregon. She was kind enough to photocopy for me pages from the appendix of her dissertation listing sources for broadsides of FRS.

It was about this time that I was able to gain almost full access to the Internet through public terminals at the university here. I soon discovered that I was able to access the on-line catalogues of many libraries around the world. In some cases I was able to verify some of the sources from the appendix to Dianne Dugaw's dissertation. One example was Trinity College, Dublin and the Royal Irish Academy (In Dublin, as well). And, through a couple of "" e-mail correspondences in England and Ireland I was able to obtain a photocopy of a broadside.

Another access was the "WorldCat" which helped me locate a recording which turned out to be in this university library's collection : Warren Fahey and the Larrikins, "Limejuice and Vinegar".

A way back when I didn't have any success finding anything about FRS from Australia I assumed that it had more of a British origin only because it contains the "Gravesend" and "River Thames". When I spoke with Dianne Dugaw she suggested it had more if an "Irish" origin. I set about trying to log on to the catalogues of any of the libraries she had listed where she had found broadsides of it. At the same time I started "surfing" the Internet for "Irish Folk Music" to no avail until I came across a link for your site "Australian Folk Songs".


australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory