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


“…a delightful journey through time…”

-Laura Orleans, Director, New Bedford Fishing Heritage Center, New Bedford, MA

Read a review and interview from the MV Times, Martha’s Vineyard, MA written by Amelia Smith


A lecture/concert with a captivating visual presentation that bring the songs into their historical and cultural contexts.

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. 

Cross-dressing? Heroic young girls saving manly men on storm-tossed seas? Beautiful women luring unsuspecting sailors to their doom? Women working in seafood processing plants? All these subjects and more are the focus of my “Women and the Sea: Exploring Women’s Roles in Maritime Song” program.

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!)

  • Ida Lewis – a lighthouse keeper from Rhode Island who performed numerous rescues in the mid-19th century
  • 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


“Cowan is a talented storyteller with a powerful voice and guitar playing prowess. She facilitates the Women and the Sea program with ease, oscillating her attention between interacting with the audience, strumming the guitar, singing, and paying homage to the lives of sometimes forgotten, yet influential, women in maritime history. The program as a whole is not only enjoyable to listen and sing along to, but also leaves the audience with another piece of interesting history that explores and celebrates the strength of women.”

-Nina Ferry, Librarian, Oak Bluffs Public Library, Oak Bluffs (Martha’s Vineyard), MA

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, New Bedford Fishing Heritage Center, New Bedford, MA

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