With a brace of pistols all at her side: Kickass women in folk songs

Originally posted at Bad Reputation

Struggling as usual to come up with the ‘pop culture’ bit of the feminist pop culture adventure that you and I are embarking on together, I hit upon a brilliant idea: I could write something about the pop culture of the 1800s! So here I am talking about traditional Anglo-American music. Problem solved.

I was also inspired by a question from @FeministInti to her twitter followers: do you know any folk songs that feature gender-based violence? The answer is yes, AND HOW. In a few moments we had amassed enough for a limited edition CD box set of traditional songs about rape, domestic violence and murdered women.

It tends to be these songs that a lot of modern folkish artists have picked up on. Yes, I’m looking at you Nick Cave. And you, Decemberists, although I love you. There are also a lot (a LOT) of waiflike folk girls with guitars singing about how love is like a cloud or they’re not sure which handbag matches their heart, as parodied by Bill Bailey.

As an antidote to the murdery and misogynist on the one hand and the mindlessly insipid and pathetic on the other I thought I would take this opportunity to share and celebrate some traditional songs in which women come out on top.

Note: Because the songs are hundreds of years old in some cases there’s quite a lot of variety over names and lyrics. I managed to find versions of nearly all of them on Spotify and have made a collaborative playlist so y’all can add any others you find: Kickass women in folk songs.

Cross-dressing adventurers

Now THIS is what I’m talking about – songs about women dressing as sailors, hunters and highwaymen, whether to find their true love or just for kicks. Some of them sound a little unhinged: like Sovay, who is prepared to blow her lover’s head off if he gives up the love token she has given him. But the heroine in ‘The Golden Glove’ is very endearing as she cleverly arranges matters so that she can marry the man she loves (and “enjoy” him, as she sings gleefully).

If you’d like more stories of derring-do like this, I recommend Dianne Dugaw’s Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1650-1850.


“Sovay Sovay all on a day
She dressed herself in man’s array
With a brace of pistols all at her side
To meet her true love, to meet her true love, for did she ride”

Full lyrics

Spotify: Pentangle – Sovay

When I Was A Fair Maid

“When I was a fair maid about seventeen
I listed in the navy for to serve the queen
I listed in the navy, a sailor lad to stand
For to hear the cannons rattling
and the music so grand”

Full lyrics

Spotify: Triona Ní Dhomhnaill – When I Was A Fair Maid

The Golden Glove

“Coat waistcoat and trousers the young girl put on
And away she went a-hunting with her dog and her gun
And she hunted around where the farmer he did dwell
Because in her heart oh she loved him so well”

Full lyrics

Spotify: Alva – The Golden Glove

‘The Female Sailor’ broadsheet from the National Maritime Museum

Bold William Taylor

“Then the captain stepped up to her, pleased well at what she’s done;

The Female Sailor' broadsheet from the National Maritime Museum

He’s gone and made her a bold commander, over a ship and all its men.”

Full lyrics

Spotify: Patrick Street – William Taylor



Just a couple of examples – ‘I Wanna Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart’ is basically about a woman who wants to be a cowboy, the ‘sweetheart’ of the title is purely incidental, and ‘Belle Starr’ is about a real life wild west fugitive who had a number of famous fugitive lovers.

I Wanna Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart

“I wanna pillow my head by the sleeping herd
while the moon shines down from above
I wanna strum my guitar, and yodellaheehoo,
that’s the life that I love!”

Full lyrics

Spotify: Patsy Montana – I Wanna Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart

Belle Starr

Eight lovers they say combed your waving black hair
Eight men knew the feel of your dark velvet waist
Eight men heard the sounds of your tan leather skirt
Eight men heard the bark of the guns that you wore

Full lyrics

Spotify: Pete Seeger – Belle Starr


Bold and crafty women

The Crafty Maid and Lovely Joan outsmart their arrogant would-be seducers and make off with their horses. Sally Brown kicks the ass of the Cruel Youth, saving her own life and avenging the deaths of the ‘pretty maidens’ who went before her, and the Bonny Lass of Angelsey dances the king and 15 of his knights out of their swag.

The Crafty Maid’s Policy

“But as soon as the maid she saw him a’coming
She instantly then took her pistol in hand
Saying “Doubt not my skill, it is you I would kill
I will have you stand back or you are a dead man.”

Full lyrics

Spotify: Frankie Armstrong – The Crafty Maid’s Policy

Lovely Joan

“She’s robbed him of his horse and ring,
And left him to rage in the meadows green.”

Full lyrics

Spotify: Heather Wood – Lovely Joan

The Cruel Youth

“Lie there, lie there, you cruel young man,
Lie there lie there,” said she
“Six pretty maidens you’ve drowned here,
now go keep them company.”

Full lyrics

YouTube: Gerri Gribi – The Cruel Youth

The Bonny Lass of Angelsey

“She’s taken all their bucklers and swords
She’s taken their gold and their bright money
And back to the mountains she’s away
The bonnie lass of Anglesey”

Full lyrics

Spotify: Paddy Tutty – The Bonny Lass Of Anglesey

Silver Dagger

The woman in Joan Baez’s version of the Silver Dagger decides not to risk getting her heart broken by keeping clear of love altogether. Whether she’s right or wrong, I like that she makes a choice.

“My daddy is a handsome devil
He’s got a chain five miles long
And on every link a heart does dangle
Of another maid he’s loved and wronged.”

Full lyrics

Spotify: Joan Baez – Silver Dagger

Thanks to my main song sources Mudcat and Creative Folk!

Copyright: Sarah Jackson, May 2011