Album notes: "This is old and English. To me it's one of the more peculiar and delightful visions expressed in the body of Christmas music. Are the three ships Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Are they camels, ships of the desert? Are they the product of an artist's imagination? Was the artist consuming too much ergot in his daily bread?"
19 December 1993 -
Hansen: The tune 'I Saw Three Ships' is one that I've listened to over and over again, as I had been growing up, but I was very interested in what you said in the liner notes about this one, that perhaps the artist had consumed too much ergot in his daily bread, ergot of course being a hallucinogen. [laughs]
BC: "Yeah. Well, there is one theory that a lot of the art and culture that arose out of medieval and renaissance Europe came as a result of people being in a permanent state of hallucination because all their bread was moldy and the mold was producing this chemical. It certainly is true that the image of three ships is a peculiar one. It's a pretty image, but it's so utterly unscriptural, that I was kind of curious as to how somebody would have come up with this. But I've read a couple of different ideas as to where the image of the ships came from. Once is that it was believed that after the whole thing came down after Christ's departure to heaven and during the early stages of Christian persecution, Joseph of Arimathea and the Three Marys sailed to the south of France from the Middle East. That's one element of the grail myth as well, so, and then somebody else suggested, well, maybe he's talking about camels, ships of the desert. But that's not in the Bible story either, that Joseph and Mary appeared on camels, so I think the guy was having a real good daydream."
Hansen: And it lasted and lasted.
BC: "And it lasted, and he's made it available to us, thankfully. [singing] And all the angels in heaven did sing, on Christmas day, on Christmas day. And all the angels in heaven did sing on Christmas day in the morning. I saw three ships come sailing in on Christmas day, on Christmas day. I saw three ships come sailing in on Christmas day in the morning."
-- from "Revisiting Traditional Carols with Bruce Cockburn" by Liane Hansen, Weekend Edition, National Public Radio, 19 December 1993. Submitted by Nigel Parry.
December 1993 -
BC: I Saw Three Ships. One of the more peculiar sets of lyrics.
Simon Mayo: Yeah, I've never understood this - I saw three ships come sailing...
What's all this about?
BC: There's a couple of different theories. My own personal theory is that,
as has been suggested by various historians, all throughout the Middle Ages
and a little later people were in a perpetual state of, shall we say, psychic
disturbance, as a result of consuming large amounts of fungus with their
bread. And that may be the source of the imagery in the song. The other thing
that is probably more true, but not nearly as much fun to think about, is
that there's a story, that's probably also myth, that when the real Roman
oppression fell on the Holy Land, Joseph of Arimathea and the three Marys
sailed off to the South of France with the Holy Grail and settled there, and
that the three ships in question are their ships. But who knows?
SM: So perhaps we'll stick to the drug-induced idea, shall we?
BC:: Of course, the story of the Holy Grail going to the South of France may
be drug-induced also; we don't know this. We don't do drugs around here,
though, I've gotta tell you that.
SM: No, of course, Bruce.
BC: This is ancient history we're doing here now.
SM: I understand. OK, with all those pictures in mind now, this is Bruce
Cockburn and I Saw Three Ships.
-- from "Simon Mayo interviews Bruce Cockburn" (from Canada), BBC Radio 1, December 1993, Transcribed and submitted to the project by David Newton.
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This page is part of The Cockburn Project, a unique website that exists to document the work of Canadian singer-songwriter and musician Bruce Cockburn. The Project archives self-commentary by Cockburn on his songs and music, and supplements this core part of the website with news, tour dates, and other current information.