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> Waterson:Carthy > Songs > The Bay of Biscay
> Martin Carthy > Songs > Brass Monkey: Willie the Waterboy

The Bay of Biscay / Willie the Waterboy / Willie-O

[ Roud 22567 ; Ballad Index CrMa113 ; trad.]

Tim Hart and Maddy Prior sang the night visiting song Bay of Biscay with glorious harmonies in 1969 on their second duo album, Folk Songs of Old England Vol 2. The album's sleeve notes commented:

An Irish song of the night visiting variety collected by Geoff Woods from James McKinley of Tra-Narossen, Donegal. Like so many of these songs the drowned sailor, after a seven year absence, appears to his girlfriend in the middle of the night; presumably an extension of the belief that unless a body received Christian burial the soul could not rest in peace.

Nora Cleary sang a variant of this under the title Willie-O—which shares three verses with the above—in her home at The Hand, Miltown Maybay, Co. Clare in July 1976. Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie recorded her; and this track was included on the anthology O'er His Grace The Grass Grew Green (The Voice of the People Series Volume 3; Topic 1998). By the way, this is the one song listed here that does not refer to the Bay of Biscay, but instead it has the cock-crow motif at the end. Probably that's why the CD liner notes list it as Child 248, i.e. a variant of The Grey Cock.

Boys of the Lough sang Willie O in 1980 on their Topic album Regrouped.

John Kirkpatrick sang this ballad as Willie the Waterboy in 1986 on Brass Monkey's LP See How it Runs, which was reissued on the CD The Complete Brass Monkey. The original album's sleeve notes commented:

Sung by Mrs Whiting, of Newport, Monmouthshire, to George Butterworth in April 1908. Selected by Michael Dawney for inclusion in The Ploughboy's Glory, published by the EFDSS in 1977. ‘Waterboy’ and ‘Waterman’ are names for fairy spirits in Germany.

I'll have to add that, while ‘Wassermann’ is the German translation of the zodiac sign of Aquarius, I've never heard of any kind of ‘Waterboy’ here.

This rather long video from Barnsley Acoustic Roots Festival 2012 shows Brass Monkey performing The Friar in the Well, The King's Hunt, Soldier, Soldier / The Flowers of Edinburgh, Willie the Waterboy, and Happy Hours:

Norma Waterson sang The Bay of Biscay in 1999 on Waterson:Carthy's third album Broken Ground. Martin Carthy commented in the sleeve notes:

There are two people we have to thank for The Bay of Biscay. One is Mary O'Connor, an Irish woman who lives in Watford and who sang regularly at the Pump House club (organised by the redoubtable Bob Wakeling until apathy—certainly not his own—forced him to close it) and one of whose songs it is, and the other is Deirdre MacLennan from Inverness who got me out of a hole when I couldn't remember the last verse and taught it to me. It's in her repertoire too and there is no song quite like it. It's a song about the never ending ache of loss and it haunts. I don't think I've ever seen it in print.

Bill Cassidy sang Biscayo on the Musical Traditions anthology of songs and stories from Jim Carroll's and Pat Mackenzie's recordings of Irish Travellers in England, From Puck to Appleby (2003).

Jon Boden learned Bay of Biscay from the singing of Tim Hart & Maddy Prior and sang it as the October 7, 2010 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. He commented:

My absolute favourite Tim Hart and Maddy Prior track. The harmony line is so good that it took me a very long time to work out who had the melody. I think I picked the right line!

Chris Sarjeant sang The Bay of Biscay in 2012 on his WildGoose album Heirlooms.

Jim Moray sang this song as Seven Long Years in 2012 on his CD Skulk.


Tim Hart & Maddy Prior sing Bay of Biscay Waterson Carthy sing The Bay of Biscay

“My Willy sails on board the tender
And where he is I do not know.
For seven years I've been constantly waiting
Since he crossed the Bay of Biscay-o.”

My William sailed on board the tender
And where he is I do not know,
For seven long years I have been waiting
Since he has crossed the Bay of Biscay-o.

One night as Mary lay a-sleeping,
A knock came to her bedroom door,
Saying, “Arise, arise, my dearest Mary,
For to earn one glance of your Willy-o.”

One night as Mary lay a-sleeping
A knock came to her bedroom door,
Saying, “Arise, arise, my lovely Mary,
It is your true lover, William-o.”

Young Mary rose, put on her clothes,
Unto her bedroom door did go
And there she spied her Willy standing,
His two pale cheeks as white as snow.

So Mary rose, put on her clothing,
So swift she's opened up the door.
And there she saw her true lover standing,
His cherry cheeks they were as white as snow.

“Oh Willy dear, where are those blushes,
Those blushes I knew long years ago?”
“Oh Mary dear, the cold clay has them
I am only the ghost of your Willy-o.”

“Oh William dear, where are your blushes,
Your blushes you'd got some time ago?”
“Oh Mary dear—the clay has changed me
And I am the ghost of your William-o.”

“Oh Mary dear, the dawn is coming.
Don't you think it is time for me to go?
I am leaving you quite broken-hearted
For to cross the Bay of Biscay-o.”

“And Mary dear, the dawn is breaking,
The time has come for me to go.
And I must leave you broken-hearted
Since I have crossed the Bay of Biscay-o.”

“If I had all the gold and silver
And all the money in Mexico,
I would grant it all to the King of Erin
To bring me back my Willy-o.”

Nora Cleary sing Willie-O Brass Monkey sing Willie the Waterboy

As Mary lay sleeping, her love came creeping
To her bedroom door so slow,
Saying, “Rise up, Mary, my lovely Mary,
I'm your charming Willie-o.”

As young Mary lay sleeping, Willie come creeping
To her bed chamber door did go,
Saying, “Arise and awake, young lovely Mary,
For it is your true love, Young William-o.”

Mary arose, she put on her clothes
And to her bedroom door did go,
And there she found her own true lover
And his face was white as the lily snow.

So Mary she rose and she put on her clothing,
To her bedchamber door did go,
And there she met with her true love William
Whom she'd not seen some long time ago.

Oh it's seven long years I've been daily writing
All over the Bay of Biscay-o,
But it's cruel death gave me no answer
Gave me no answer from my William-o.

“Oh, Willie dear, where are those blushes,
That you had some long ago?”
“Mary dear, the clay has changed them;
I'm but the ghost of your Willie-o.”

Then it's, “William dear, where are those blushes,
Those blushes you wore, being so long ago?”
Then it's, “Mary dear, oh the cold clay has worn them
For I am but the ghost of Young William-o.”

They spent that night in deep conversation
Concerning their courtship years ago.
They kissed, they shook hands and sorrowful parted
Just as the cock began to grow.

And as they were in deep conversation
Down her cheeks the tears did flow.
“Farewell, Darling, I must leave you;
I'm but the ghost of your Willie-o.”

“Oh, Willie dear, when will we meet again?”
“When the fishes there will fly
And the sea it will run dry
And the rocks they will melt with the sun.”


Willie the Waterboy lyrics copied from the LP sleeve notes by Garry Gillard, thanks to Wolfgang Hell.