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Sally Free and Easy

[ Roud - ; DT SALLFREE ; Mudcat 109027 ; trad.]

[Cyril Tawney]

Cyril Tawney wrote Sally Free and Easy, one of his best known songs, in 1958. He recorded it in 1970 for his 1972 Argo album In Port; this recording was included in 1997 on the anthology New Electric Muse II. He also sang it as title track of his 1989 Neptune cassette Sally Free and Easy which was reissued in 2003 with two bonus tracks as the CD Navy Cuts: The Songs of Cyril Tawney. He commented in the latter album’s sleeve notes:

As well as breaking hearts, sailors also have them broken, and my output contains several in that vein. Inspiration came from various shipmates as well as my vulnerable young self. Submariners seemed particularly prone, and the accompaniment mimics a submarine’s diesel engine. Probably my most successful song. I’ve heard Bob Dylan, Marianne Faithful and many others singing it, but its initial popularity was undoubtedly due to Davy Graham.

A live recording from Holsteins folk club in Chicago on 31 May 1981 was published in 2007 on Tawney’s CD Live at Holsteins.

This video shows him at Cheltenham Folk Festival:

Cyril Tawney wrote on his now defunct own website about his song:

Quite early in my Navy career, about the time I was emerging from my Technical Apprenticeship, I had the feeling that I was destined to be a poet, so in those days I read a fair amount of poetry, something I rarely do now. One of the poems I came across was W.H. Auden’s “Roman Wall Blues”. In content it was a soliloquy by an obviously ‘chokker’ Roman sentry on a lonely Northern outpost, presumably Hadrian’s Wall, but what fascinated me was that its structure was in the form of an American Negro twelve-bar blues. Like any other admirer of the blues I had always assumed that its lyrics could only be imitated, not developed. Whether you were being serious or only writing a send-up, the words had to sound as if they were coming from an ordinary Southern American Negro. But now, reading “Roman Wall Blues”, I realised for the first time that a blues with a purely ‘English English’ diction was both possible and acceptable. At this point I don’t think the problem posed by the blues melody was bothering me too much. I wasn’t thinking about the obvious necessity of breaking away from the standard chord sequence of the blues and how I was going to do it.

What turned out to be another important strand in the creation of this song was the atmosphere of a deserted Navy dockyard. The Gene Kelly / Frank Sinatra film On the Town opens on an American Navy yard before the day’s work has begun. A lone crane driver arrives and sings a slow introductory piece: “I feel like I ain’t out of bed yet”. I was totally smitten with this very short episode, and it stayed in the back of my mind until one summer day in 1958, when I too found myself walking through a deserted dockyard.

It was early on a Sunday morning in Portsmouth and the untypical tranquillity of what was usually a very noisy place brought the American crane driver and his lament leaping back into my mind. I felt an urge to start a similar song of complaint myself, but it came out as yet another song of unrequited love and, believe it or not, Sally Free and Easy was virtually completed by the time I reached my ship, HMS “Murray”, tied up alongside near North Corner. It couldn’t have taken more than a quarter of an hour.

Although my melody didn’t derive from the crane driver’s song, its mood, its free-flowing style certainly did, which is why the structure of the words follows the pattern of a standard twelve-bar blues yet the blues chord sequence is avoided. What burst into my head between the Main Gate of Pompey Dockyard and North Corner in 1958 may not have been an English blues, but it was certainly a strong contender to be the first English equivalent to the blues.

For my own part I’ve always treated it as a loud protest, more like a ‘holler’, but every other singer, from Davy Graham onwards, has approached it in a very introspective, brooding fashion. Another peculiar thing is that I’ve never settled on whether the last line of verse three should be ‘Then I’ll take the tideway for my burial ground’ or ‘to my burial ground’, or for that matter whether it should be ‘burial ground’ or ‘burying ground’. I think in recent years I’ve begun to be more consistent but, actually, anything can happen.

As for the guitar accompaniment, or non-accompaniment if you like, it is derived from the throbbing of a submarine’s diesel engines, and I claim that it’s the first example of minimalism in music after Ravel’s “Bolero”, coming well before John Adams et al.

Sally Free and Easy has been adapted. A miner was heard singing at the coalface:

Think I’ll wait till shiftend
See trepanner cut back
Then when Deputy’s gone
Death in t’ gob I’ll tak’

It’s also been inadvertently hi-jacked. A large chunk of the words can be found in Rory McLeod’s Love Like a Rock. He thought it was traditional—we’ve come to an arrangement. Sally Free and Easy has been mentioned in at least one work of fiction, a novel by the Irish writer Clare Boylan.

Lastly, you may be interested to learn that, according to Admiralty records, the song was never written. Their evidence indicates that HMS “Murray” never visited Portsmouth while I was serving on her. I found this out, to my surprise, when I tried to pinpoint the actual date in order to celebrate the song’s 35th birthday. So it isn’t just the first English blues, and virtually the first piece of minimalism—it’s also the world’s first phantom song.

** The late Davey Graham (cf para 5) was instrumental in popularising the song—here is a note which Cyril wrote about Davey’s version: “He made it very introspective and brooding, which attracted other singers to perform it. You can generally detect the lineage of the song’s performance by how many notes are allotted to the word ‘free’. As I wrote it there was only one note, but Davey and the others nearly all give it three, as in the word ’be’ in the next line.”

Other versions of Sally Free and Easy can be found on:


Cyril Tawney sings Sally Free and Easy

Sally free and easy, that should be her name
Sally free and easy, that should be her name
Took a sailor’s loving for a nurs’ry game

Well, the heart she gave me wasn’t made of stone
No, the heart she gave me wasn’t made of stone
It was sweet and hollow like a honeycomb

Think I’ll wait till sunset, see the ensign down
Yes I’ll wait till sunset, see the ensign down
Then I’ll take the tideway to my burial ground

Sally free and easy, that should be her name
Sally free and easy, that should be her name
When my body’s landed hope she dies of shame