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Women and the Sea: Exploring Women’s Roles in Maritime Songs


Program Goal: To offer an engaging and informative look at the often overlooked and varied roles and experiences of women in Maritime songs and ballads. 

There are an abundance of songs that describe the many different and diverse roles that women have played in Maritime songs and stories. Sirens and supernatural women, the women left behind and women disguised as men are among the themes explored in this program.  Debra also discusses these roles and sings examples of contemporary and traditional sea-songs in which women are featured as the main characters. Debra emphasizes that women can overcome adversity and in some of these songs and stories, take charge and win the day.

Below are four examples of songs that will be performed during this program

Program outline

Supernatural Songs

  • The Maid on The Shore -a supernatural ballad with a surprising endin
  • The Dreadful Ghost – audio above

The Women Left behind (Wives and Lovers)

  • Bay of BiscayO – audio above
  • Widowmaker – audio above
  • Lament for the Hull Trawlers – written by Ewan MacColl and Frankie Armstrong. Focus is on the wives whose husbands were lost in the Triple Trawler Disaster of 1968 in Northeast England
  • Fisherman’s Wife – a contemporary song (composer unknown) about the women left behind

Women Disguised as Men

  • Isabella Gunn – song written by Eileen McGann and based on a true story from the early 19th century
  • Female Rambling Sailor – a broadside possibly from the mid 19th century
  • Willie Taylor – another broadside 

Breaking the Glass Ceiling  (Courage Dear Girl, Courage!)

  • Grace Darling – story of Grace darling who single handedly rescued survivors of a shipwreck in 1838
  • The Rainbow – a broadside collected by Percy Grainger about a ship captain’s daughter

Women at Work

  • Cannery Shed, Crab Shaker’s Song – two songs by Mary Garvey, poet and songwriter from the Pacific Northwest
  • Salmon Canning Song – written by Linda Chobotuk about her experience in a cannery in British Columbia


Our Sisters’ School students enjoyed time spent with Debra Cowan; her thoughtful song selection was age appropriate for our students and pertinent to the theme of our school. Debra’s comfort performing allowed our students to relax and enjoy time spent with her as we shared songs, explored their meaning and learned to listen to stories the songs were telling us.”

-Sarah Herman, Director, Our Sisters School, New Bedford MA

“In her Women and the Sea program, Debra has carefully selected ballads, sea chanteys, and contemporary songs through which she takes listeners on a delightful journey through time, sharing tales of humor and hardship, and the very real challenges faced by women who are part of the maritime world.”

-Laura Orleans, Director, Working Waterfront Festival, New Bedford, MA

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