The Mermaid’s Melody

In 1895 a young mother sang this lullaby to her children while she nursed them at a church in Kinnakeet, a village on the Outer Banks.  The rest of the congregation was singing “Come Thou Fount of Many Blessings,” but she must have stepped into the back of the church to soothe her two little ones.

It’s not the kind of moment that usually makes it into history books.

But a visitor, a UNC geology professor named Collier Cobb, overheard her song and recorded the first two lines in an account of island life that he published in 1910—

Follow, follow through the sea
To the mermaid’s melody

With a little research, I found the lyrics to the lullaby that the young mother was singing that Sunday morning.

The Little Kinnakeet Life Saving Station, 1871-1915. Courtesy, National Park Service

The Little Kinnakeet Life Saving Station, 1871-1915. Courtesy, National Park Service

I don’t know how it got to the Outer Banks, but the song originally came from a play called “The Antiquary,” written by an English playwright and actor named Daniel Terry in 1820.

Terry was a friend of the great Scottish novelist, poet and playwright Sir Walter Scott. The song appeared in his adaptation of Scott’s novel, The Antiquary, for the stage.

For Valentines Day I thought I’d just share the lullaby here—

Follow, follow through the sea
To the mermaid’s melody!
Safely, freely shalt though range
Through things dreadful, quaint and strange!

 And through liquid walls behold
Wonders that may not be told:
Treasures, too, for ages lost—
Gems surpassing human cost.

 Fearless, fearless follow me
Through the treasures of the sea.

 Though shalt hear sea-music swell
From the chiton’s curled shell;
Sea-nymphs shall, with dance and song,
Draw thy charmed steps along

 To the palace glory-dight
Of the white-armed Amphitrite,
Whose coral throne and amber roof
Ocean monsters guard aloof.

 Fearless, fearless follow me
Through the wonders of the sea.

The young mother was singing about an ocean world she knew, and that her children would come to know, too: Kinnakeet is the old name for the present-day village of Avon, on Hatteras Island, and in those days nearly every man and woman in the village made their living from the sea.

I thought it was a lovely moment and, as I said before, not the kind of memory that usually makes it into history books.

Sometimes I grow weary of writing history about wars and disasters, and the evils that people do to one another.

Sometimes, and more and more as I grow older, I hold on instead to the little moments of love and tenderness that I find in old historical accounts, as I do in the rest of my life as well.

Happy Valentines Day, and much love to you all.

 

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