John Paul Jones's American ship outruns a British man-of-war. Most of the ballad is devoted to describing the way the ship sails.
Although much is made of Jones's escape in this song, it really was not exceptional. The _Ranger_ was a small commerce-raider, designed to be fast (and, according to Fletcher Pratt, _The Compact History of the United States Navy_, was also quite new, which would also tend to make her faster); heavy men-of-war were much slower, as they had to carry much more weight.
According to John Fitzhugh Millar and Gregory Irons (illustrtor), _Ships of the American Revolution_ (Bellerophon, 1988), entry on the _Ranger_, the ship was an 18-gun corvette built at Portsmouth in 1777 and named after "the skillful riflemen who had played a crucial role in the great American victory at Saratoga." It adds that the ship was regarded as "exceptionally fast but 'over-hatted' (she had more sail area than was considered safe to carry)." Howard I. Chapelle, _The History of American Sailing Ships_, Norton, 1935, p. 59, confirms this: "[T]he _Ranger_ was the most famous [of three sloop-ships built at this time[; she was built at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1777. William Hackett seems to have been her designed, and his cousin, James K. Hackett of Portsmouth, the builder."
It is ironic to note that the _Ranger_ (no longer commanded by Jones, of course) was captured by the British in 1780 at the fall of Charleston, and ended its career as HMS _Halifax_ (and was quickly found unsuitable for British use; she was sold in 1781).
For a biography of Jones (who is the "stately southerner" of Doerflinger's ballad; the title does not refer to the ship, as the _Ranger_ sailed out of New England), see the entry on "Paul Jones's Victory" [Laws A4]. - RBW