A New Catalogue Introduction

‘Dangerous Examples’ Over Four Centuries of Song: Nevertheless, They Persisted 

Dianne Dugaw (2017)

“Mistress Mary Ambree, your examples are dangerous.”

Ben Jonson, Epicoene (1609), IV, ii, 123-24.

“She was warned…. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

Mitch McConnell, U.S. Senate Majority Leader, on his silencing of Senator Elizabeth Warren in the Senate (8 February 2017) 

This catalogue gathers four centuries of ballads from the English-speaking world that sing of female warriors:  women who dress as men and venture to war and to sea for love and for glory.  Giving rise to an immediately notorious and eventually conventionalized story-type, cross-dressed fighting and sailing women have starred in pop-song hits, printed on broadsides from Shakespeare’s time through the Victorian age, and remembered and performed by traditional and popular singers to this day.  A model of daring, beauty, and pluck, the ballad warrior ventures dons male disguise, usually to track down or venture with a lover. Through the narrative vitality permeating these songs and their paradoxical protagonist, we can examine aspects of storytelling patterns since the ancient Greeks that highlight concepts of female and male gender identity, sexuality and desire, and paradigmatic enactments of heroism.  Over centuries, conventionalized narratives present the female warrior as deserving in romance, able in war, and typically rewarded in both rather than punished for her transgressive venturing.  Her sturdy character, perilous forays, and long-lasting renown run counter to a modern age’s expectations of a past usually assumed to be universally benighted, confining, and repressive for women.  I am pleased that this catalogue, accompanying the collection of ballads compiled in the 1970s and ‘80s, is now available online for your investigation and analysis.

The songs catalogued here demonstrate the interplay of orality, performance, and print for individual ballads as a coherent tradition in popular song.  First appearing on printed broadsides, some female warrior ballads have been remembered and collected from people’s singing a century or more later.  Concisely defined, the ballad is a narrative song set to a rounded (i.e., stanzaic) tune that presents a series of actions typically involving a small cast of characters.[1]  Originating as a medieval oral form, ballads became a staple of popular printing across Europe by the end of the sixteenth century, beginning the reciprocal interplay of printed and oral performance, commercial and non-commercial singing that remains pervasive to this day.

The male-disguised female soldier appears as a protagonist with this early-modern advent of songs on printed single-sheet broadsides in 1590s London.  Song buyers in this popular market used these wares to remember and sing for entertainment.  By the end of the seventeenth century, songs of this type became a recurring staple in song publishing and in people’s singing traditions. Purchased as broadsides, versions of some of these ballads surface over the centuries in manuscripts, recordings, and printed collections of folksongs.  The collection here represents diverse sources:  printed broadsides, chapbooks, and songsters in archive collections on the one hand, and orally-collected folk songs reproduced in published and archives collections on the other.[2]

The literature and entertainment of ordinary people, single-sheet broadsides of songs in English were produced by British, Irish, and American printers from Shakespeare’s time through the nineteenth century.  Well over 100 separate ballads depicting disguising women soldiers and sailors survive from this stock of songs.  A notably prevalent pattern, the female warrior ballad type exists in the printed wares of broadside publishers alongside a range of other ballad topics and patterns:  murders—especially of women, shipwrecks, accounts of pirates and robbers, songs of love and courtship, political diatribes, patriotic enjoinders, fires and other disasters, and so on.  As the collection here reveals, many female warrior ballads exist in variant versions that reflect the changes that songs undergo as they are repeatedly circulated and renewed in print, writing, and singing from one generation to the next.

Since my initial work, further studies have explored both the Anglo-American and European historical record and literature at all levels that record cross-dressing women soldiers and sailors as fact and fascination.[3]  Documented stories of early-modern cross-dressing women suggest that the concepts that our period articulates as “gender” and “sexuality” have long been shifting forms.[4]  In 1941 the folklorist Alan Lomax asked  the Nova Scotia singer Carrie Grover if she had “daydreams” of being such a woman soldier: “I sure did,” replied Mrs. Grover, “I had daydreams about a good many of these songs … I imagine things like this happened in the days gone by … but now they’ve got laws, so they couldn’t get by with it.”[5]

In addition to changes in our thinking over time, the social forms, limitations, and practices related to gender and sexuality have altered dramatically in recent decades.  Women now directly participate in combat as well as in all branches of U.S. military institutions and elsewhere, a stark contrast to the nearer past, for example the 1940s era in which Carrie Grover lived.  Individuals reach understandings and make choices with regard to sex/gender identities—including non-binary, intersex, transgender, or transsexual—in the context of an increasingly elaborate medical-pharmaceutical technology, accompanied by complex although contested developments in psychological definitions.  Similarly, new media technologies complicate and reshape our considerations of such categories of cultural production as orality, writing, transmission, class and ethnic diversity, and expressive traditions and practices.[6]The women warriors and the popular ballads in which we find them here presciently signaled or foreshadowed many of these changes in centuries past.  Materials catalogued here offer a resource to research and historicize salient aspects of our past and present-day performative and oral, multi-cultural, and transgendered world.

Popular materials—such as long-lived song traditions in recurring forms within diverse materials—call for delineation of patterns. How can we map our recognition of recurrence, convention, and narrative predictability?  As the cross-dressing motif prompted my interest in the 1970s, any popular song from print or oral tradition that featured a woman masquerading as a man, in any role, called my attention.  However, as the assembled materials increased, I saw that a majority presented women in military or sailing contexts, a feature of marketing and resonance linked to growing European and American military power and colonial expansion.  Moreover, songs of women soldiers and sailors, compared to the lesser number showing women in other disguises—such as male tailors, political duelists, or marauding highwaymen—follow a predictable, conventionalized plot trajectory in which an imaginative syntactic pattern governs events.  The mapping of narrative structures as pioneered by linguist Vladimir Propp guided my recognition of the “typeset” characterizing songs about women cross-dressers, which I labeled the female warrior ballad, the bulk of the songs collected and catalogued here.[7]  A final section of the collection (Appendix II) preserves the remainder of disguising ballads that present other than military contexts, a usefully kindred and revealing category of songs that depict women passing as men in other contexts. The original opening remarks to the catalogue and collection below describe this arrangement.

Governed by an overarching conventionalized structure, the recurrent narrative patterning of the female warrior ballad type can be illustrated by the accompanying diagram. (See Figure 1.)  As shown, these ballads typically move through the possibilities of the story pattern from an initiating scene of courtship and an actual or threatened separation, a scene in which the woman’s disguise is proposed. With the narrative set in motion, the disguising protagonist undergoes trials and tests as a soldier or sailor, typically maintaining her masquerade.  At this point, a number of ballads introduce tests of the woman’s unsuspecting lover or in some cases her unsuspecting parents.  Finally, the story pattern reaches its standard conclusion, the disclosure of the disguise and a celebratory marriage.  This syntax of the narrative works as an underlying tug toward a predictable order of events.  While not all these ballads include every element of the pattern, the direction of events is always the same.  Many examples that skip over specific elements will nonetheless suggest or imply otherwise missing features of the pattern—a hint of a dialogue at the outset, the suggestion of a challenge or test of the lover or the parents at the end, and so on.[8]  Because recognition of this generative patterning is useful for understanding this story type, the ballads are ordered in the collection in accordance with this structure.

Like other culturally prevailing tale-types, the narrative motif governing these ballads exposes long-standing preoccupations as well as values—in this case, connections between ideas about gender, notions of heroism, and how the two categories contribute to and create each other. That is, a binary imagining of hierarchical gender makes “manliness” and identification with it appear necessary to virtue and heroism.  The protagonist of these ballads triumphs, but notably, as a “man” in a “manly” context taking part in a “manly” narrative.  She has adventures, wins praise, and almost always survives to get what she wants.  Not restricted to undergoing(the female role), she takes action.  Further, she gets a say and a song about her exploits.  Through her parody of ancient, standard heroic patterns of warring and winning, whether in earnest or laughingly, the ballad female warrior illustrates how “gender” actually encodes heroism and power.  Wryly or sweetly, she plays “the man” as well as “the woman” to win honor, love, and a song of her own.

The narrative, conceptual, and imaginative preoccupation with the female warrior remained popular for several hundred years.  Moreover, ballads of this type are not a closed account.  As my collection shows, no small number of them continue to be known and sung into the present era.  Versions are still found among traditional singers.  Popular professional artists perform and record revivals of these ballads, reintroducing the songs both live and in digital formats that are today’s analogues to the broadside print publishing of an earlier time.

This catalogue poses data for study as well a collection of songs that can be performed. For students of popular music, folklore, and mass culture, the materials here disclose the workings of cultural marketing, distribution, and dissemination of a large group of ballads over several centuries, giving a chronological dimension to popular forms that in present modes of study remain too often inadequately documented and historicized.  Mistakenly considered to exist outside a traceable past, such “folk” forms remain trapped in a limiting and distorting presentism.  As this catalogue shows, valuable records of ordinary, non-elite people can be documented, mapped chronologically, and analyzed historically. The catalogued records of ballads about women warriors—where and when printed, where and when sung—give a remarkably traceable history and geography of singing and song-creating patterns. Attesting to the ongoing interchange between oral and noncommercial expressive forms with those of print and trade marketing, they supply a dimensional, diachronic overview of how song traditions develop and work.

These ballads posit a female heroism that challenges nineteenth- and twentieth-century paradigms about women’s “natural” frailty, limitation, and passivity, to show that ideas about gender and women’s “nature” change dramatically over time.  These were not the songs or images of my youth in the mid-twentieth century. In addition, these songs disclose little-known facts and concerns of the lives of actual women, especially the intrepid lower-class women whose masquerade narratives recurrently surface in and hover in the annals alongside these accounts.

Similarly, the protagonist and narrative pattern evident in these ballads open to view how representations of sexual orientation and expression are inflected by ideologies and material concerns of time and place.  Frequently, songs deliberately foreground how the disguising poses homoerotic opportunity, exploring the ambiguities of sexual desire in a binary gender system, as both women and men alike fall for the song’s “handsome cabinboy” who, as we know, is a woman.[9]  Moreover, to a degree, all the ballads here present an ideal of transgendering:  the hermaphroditic, gender-confounding woman hero passes as a man with an ease and applause that do not correspond to reactions in more recent times.

But our twenty-first century is now refashioning for itself an in-between, hybrid, or simply non-categorized space eluding the binary delineation of gender as femaleormale previously assumed as “natural” and “universal.”  Ours is an historical moment attentive to just such gender-bending as the once oxymoronic female warrior celebrates.  These songs and their centuries-long popular tradition underscore the extent to which gender and sexuality can be and indeed have beenseen as performance:  role and enactment rather than innate personal identity. With fascinating aplomb, the heroines of these many ballads “queer” long-standard rubrics of Western heroism and romance, usefully revealing and affording an opportunity to rethink our cherished—or oppressive—patterns and stories.


[1]See Dugaw, “Ballad,” The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, Roland Greene, ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), pp.114-18.

[2]My UCLA PhD dissertation (1982) comprises a study of these ballads, with the catalogue and collection as Appendices. Expanding my research and study of the songs, their protagonist, and their social, cultural, and literary context, I published Warrior Women and Popular Balladry 1650-1850(Cambridge University Press, 1989; pbk University of Chicago Press, 1996).  For my recording of ten of the ballads, see Fighting & Sailing Women in Song (cdbaby.com, 2001).

[3]Studies on early modern cross-dressing women have appeared beginning the late 1980s, including R. Dekker and L. van de Pol, Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe(London:  Macmillan, 1989); J. Wheelwright, Amazons and Military Maids (London:  Pandora, 1989);V.Traub, Desire and Anxiety:  Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama  (London and New York:  Routledge, 1992) and TheRenaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England(Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2002); and Fraser Easton, J. Wheelwright, Amazons and Military Maids (London:  Pandora, 1989) and “Covering Sexual Disguise: Passing Women and Generic Constraint,” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, 35 (2006): 95-125.  See also my revisiting of the topic, “Heroines Gritty and Tender, Printed and Oral, Late-Breaking and Traditional:  Revisiting the Anglo-American Female Warrior” in P. Fumerton and A. Guerrini with K. McAbee, eds. (Franham, Surrey:  Ashgate, 2010), pp. 271-95.

[4]In addition to works by Dekker and van de Pol, Wheelwright, and Easton above, see also Vol. 5 of D. Dugaw, ed., Memoirs of Scandalous Women, 5 Vols. (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2011) and D. Blanton and L. Cook, They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War(Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002).

[5]Library of Congress, Archive of Folksong, Tape 4463A-2, B1,2.

[6]With regard to orality, media, and performance, important rethinking has gone on in scholarship in the past decades.  For recent summary, see Ruth Finnegan, Where is Language? An Anthropologist’s Questions on Language, Literature and Performance(London:  Bloomsbury, 2015) and Communicating: Multiple modes of human communication, 2nded. (London and New York:  Routledge, 2014).  See also Richard Bauman, A World of Others’ Words: Cross-Cultural Perspectivds on Intertextuality(Oxford:  Blackwell, 2004).  The analysis of identity as performance by such philosophers as Judith Butler supplies further theoretical framing for understanding the female warrior in

[7]See Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, trans. Laurence Scott (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968) and my discussion of its application to the ballads in Warrior Women, pp.91-117.

[8]For discussion and examples of this, see Warrior Women, pp.104-117.

[9]For discussion of this, see my “Heroines Gritty and Tender,” pp.286-95.  See also, Pauline Greenhill, “ ‘Neither a Man nor a Maid’: Sexualities and Gendered Meanings in Cross-Dressing Ballads,” Journal of American Folklore, 108 (1995): 156-77.