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If I Was a Blackbird / I Am a Young Maiden

[ Roud 387 ; Henry H79 ; Ballad Index FSC38 ; VWML GG/1/7/355 , GG/1/7/356 , GG/1/8/423 ; Wiltshire 1172 ; Mudcat 21191 ; trad.]

The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs Songs of the Ridings: The Yorkshire Musical Museum The Scottish Folk Singer Travellers' Songs from England and Scotland

James Reeves printed If I Was a Blackbird in his 1960 book The Everlasting Circle. He gave as his source George Gardiner who collected it from Mrs Maria Etheridge of Southampton, Hampshire, on 25 June 1906 [VWML GG/1/8/423] and from Alfred Fulford on Lyndhurst, Hampshire, on 1 December 1906 [VWML GG/1/11/660] . But Gardiner noted only the tune and one verse—the chorus—from Mrs Etheridge and just the tune from Mr Fulford. Instead Reeves used the version that Henry Lee of Whitchurch, Hampshire, sent to Gardiner in 1906 [VWML GG/1/7/355] , following up Gardiner's advertisement in the Hampshire Chronicle asking for more verses. Strange enough, Gardiner then visited Lee and collected nine other songs from him but not this one, which he then noted with slightly different words and without the last verse from Miss Lee; probably Henry Lee's daughter [VWML GG/1/7/356] . Frank Purslow printed Lee's verse in The Wanton Seed (EFDSS 1968) too.

Albert ‘Diddy’ Cook sang Blackbird in a recording supervised by A.L. Lloyd in The Eel's Foot Inn, Eastbridge, Suffolk, on 13 May 1938 (BBC 2168). This recording was included in 1998 on the Topic anthology As Me and My Love Sat Courting (The Voice of the People Volume 15), and in 2000 on the Veteran CD of traditional singing and music from The Eel's Foot, Good Order! Ladies and Gentlemen Please.

Jessie Murray's 18 years old niece Blanche Wood from Portnockie, Banffshire, sang I'm a Young Bonnie Lassie in Autumn 1951 to Alan Lomax for the BBC recording 21532. This recording was also included on the anthology Songs of Courtship (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 1; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1968) and on the 1961 Tradition Records anthology Heather and Glen. Another Blanche Wood recording from the 1951 Edinburgh People's Festival Ceilidh was included in 2005 on the same-named Rounder Records CD.

Winnie Ryan sang I Am a Poor Girl and My Life It Is Sad in a field recording made by Peter Kennedy and Sean O'Boyle in Belfast in 1952 (BBC recording 18588). It was included in 2014 on the Topic anthology The Flax in Bloom (The Voice of the People Volume 27).

Joe Rowe sang The Blackbird at The Ship in Blaxhall near Woodbridge, Suffolk, on 10 October 1953. This BBC recording made by Peter Kennedy was included in 2013 on the Alan Lomax Archive album Singing at The Ship Inn.

Paddie Bell sang If I Were a Blackbird in 1968 on her EMI album I Know Where I'm Going.

Queen Caroline Hughes sang If I Were a Blackbird in her caravan near Blandford, Dorset, on 19 April 1968 to Peter Kennedy. This recording was included in 2012 on the Topic anthology of songs by Southern English gypsy traditional singers, I'm a Romany Ray (The Voice of the People Volume 22).

May Bradley (1902-1974) sang If I Were a Blackbird on the 1971 EFDSS LP Garners Gay and on her Musical Traditions anthology Sweet Swansea. In fact, the CD has three different recordings of this song; all were made by Fred Hamer. The CD's editor Rod Stradling commented:

May [Bradley] called this song My Love, and before singing it she liked to explain that she had heard “a modern song” like this, but she sings it “in the old way”. Sussex Gypsy singer Mary Ann Haynes was very much of the same opinion; she had a rather similar song, which she called The Bold Sailor Boy, and believed that If I Were a Blackbird, with its verse about ‘Donnybrook Fair’, was a later, and different, piece. And she may well have been right, because most singers these days seem to have been influenced by the 1939 recording of the song by the singer Delia Murphy, which was often played on the radio (as was Ronnie Ronalde's 1950s recording).

Some commentators have described If I Were a Blackbird as a song composed entirely of ‘floating verses’, although most collected sets seem to be quite similar, a fact that suggests broadside origins—although Roud doesn't list any—certainly, May Bradley's version appears to be almost all ‘floaters’. The song does not appear to have been popular in America (only 3 examples out of a total of 69), though several of the verses associated with it do turn up in any number of Appalachian songs, such as Pretty Saro, The Turtle Dove, The Wagoner's Lad, and Little Sparrow.

Martin Carter sang If I Were a Blackbird in 1972 on his Traditional Sound album Ups & Downs.

Mary Ann Haynes' The Sailor Boy that was mentioned above can be found on the Musical Traditions anthology of 2003, Here's Luck to a Man: Gypsy Songs and Music from South-East England. It was recorded by Mike Yates between 1972 and 1975.

Peta Webb learned I Am a Poor Girl from the singing of Winnie Ryan and sang it in 1973 on her Topic album I Have Wandered in Exile. Reg Hall and A.L. Lloyd commented in the album's sleeve notes:

Unlike other pieces on this record, this song does not seem to have circulated much in England, though it is well known in the farm districts of the Scottish northeast and along the country lanes of Northern Ireland. It is mostly made up of commonplaces from a variety of nineteenth century broadside pieces, all patched together, a verse from here, another from there, including If I Were a Blackbird.

Harry Upton of Balcombe, Sussex, sang If I Were a Blackbird on 25 November 1976 to Mike Yates. This recording was included in on his Musical Traditions anthology Why Can't It Always Be Saturday?. The album's booklet commented:

Undoubtedly one of the best-known and frequently encountered songs in the the folk repertoire.

A number of singers have commented that their versions of this song predate the popular versions recorded in 1939 and 1950 by Delia Murphy and Ronnie Ronalde. And I think that Harry Upton's version, learnt from his father, also predates the 1939 recording. There is no mention of ‘Donnybrook Fair’—found in the recorded versions—and the tune that Harry sings has a number of slight differences from the recorded tunes. In general we may say that most collected sets are textually similar, which suggests a broadside origin, although it appears that no such broadside has yet been traced.

Louie Fuller (Saunders) sang If I Were a Blackbird at her home in Lingfield, Surrey, in 1976 to Mike Yates. This recording was included in 2015 on the Musical Traditions anthology of songs from the Mike Yates collections, I Wish There Was No Prisons. The album's booklet commented:

I said in the notes to Harry Upton’s version of this song that it probably predates the recordings made in 1939 and 1950 by Delia Murphy and Ronnie Ronalde. However, our present short version may have been picked up from one of the recorded versions, via the radio. I say this because there is mention of ‘Donnybrook Fair’, a place name which is found in the recorded versions.

Jean Redpath sang Poor Rovin' Lassie on her 1977 album Song of the Seals. She noted:

Peter Hall recorded this song from the singing of Danny Vass of Aberdeen and it is printed in his hook The Scottish Folksinger (Collins 1973. Buchan & Hall). I first heard it sung by Marg Sinclair of Thurso.

Harry Brazil sang If I Were a Blackbird to Gwilym Davies in Gloucester in February 1978. This recording was included in 2007 on the Brazil Family's Musical Traditions anthology, Down By the Old Riverside. The accompanying booklet commented:

Mary Ann Haynes had a rather similar song, which she called either The Sailor Boy or The Bold Sailor Boy. She believed that If I Were a Blackbird, with its verse about ‘Donnybrook Fair’, was a later, and different, piece. And she may well have been right, because most singers these days seem to have been influenced by the 1930s recording of the song by the singer Delia Murphy, which was often played on the radio (as was Ronnie Ronalde's '50s recording). Some commentators have described If I were a Blackbird as a song composed of ‘floating’ verses, although most collected sets seem to be quite similar, a fact that suggests broadside origins—although Roud doesn't list any. The song does not appear to have been popular in America (only 3 examples), though several of the verses associated with it do turn up in any number of Appalachian songs, such as Pretty Saro, The Turtle Dove, The Wagoner's Lad and Little Sparrow.

Walter Pardon of Knapton, Norfolk, sang If I Were a Blackbird on 2 August 1978 to Mike Yates. This recording was included in 2000 on Pardon's posthumous Musical Traditions anthology Put a Bit of Powder on It, Father. Rod Stradling commented in the accompanying booklet:

Given this song's popularity, it comes as something of a shock to find only 27 examples noted in Roud. Perhaps it's a song of fairly recent composition, and one largely ignored by British collectors of earlier years (although Sharp bucked the trend by collecting it three times!) For some reason it always seems to turn up with exactly the same number of verses—there are never any ‘floating’ verses attached. Mike and I remember that it was often to be heard on the radio when we were kids (Delia Murphy made a famous recording of it in the '30s, as did Ronnie Ronalde in the '50s)—this may have ‘fixed’ it in people's memories.

It has been found all over these islands and several other important singers must have valued it enough to learn it—Robert Cinnamond, Jean Ritchie, Belle Stewart, May Bradley … even Paddy Tunney! Listen to ‘Diddy’ Cook's version on the Voice of the People and relish that amazing chorus-singing (recorded in Eastbridge Eel's Foot in 1939)—then try to tell me that folk clubs were a sixties invention.

Silly Wizard sang If I Was a Blackbird on their 1981 album Wild & Beautiful. A live recording from Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, in October 1983 was included in 1986 on their REL (UK) and Green Linnet (USA) album Golden, Golden, in 1988 on their Green Linnet CD Live Wizardry, and in 2012 on their CD ‘Live’ Again. They noted on the original album:

A common theme in Scottish and Irish ballads is that “the young rover” will sail off, see the world and generally have a great time while the young lady in his life sits at home patiently waiting his return. In this song however, the roles are reversed when he returns, after a long absence, just in time to wave goodbye as she sets out on a voyage of her own.

This is an adaption of two versions which Andy [M. Stewart] learned from his mother and from his great-aunt Belle Stewart. He has written two new verses and slightly adapted the tune.

Molly Dow sang If I Was a Blackbird in 1990 on Nick Dow et al's CD An Evening of Traditional Songs from Dorset.

Maggie Boyle sang If I Were a Blackbird on Steve Tilston's and her 1992 album Of Moor and Mesa. They noted:

A traditional song that several times in this century has made the crossover into popular music. Blackbird was recorded by Delia Murphy, and was also a music hall favourite performed complete with bird-song.

Hen Party—Alison Muir, Heather Bradford and Sarah Morgan—sang If I Was a Blackbird on their 1998 WildGoose CD Nobody Here But Us…. It was produced by Paul Sartin.

Corrina Hewat sang If I Were a Blackbird in 1999 on Bachué's Culburnie album A Certain Smile.

Kerfuffle sang If I Was a Blackbird in 2003 on their first CD, Not to Scale.

Martha Tilston sang Blackbird in 2003 on her first solo album, Rolling.

Mary Humphreys and Anahata sang If I Was a Blackbird in 2004 on their WildGoose album Floating Verses. Mary Humphreys noted:

This is another song popular in the Suffolk pub sessions we frequent—it is the one I get asked to sing most often. The original song comes from the collection of G.B. Gardiner. The source singer was Henry Lee of Whitchurch Hants who sang the song in May 1906 [VWML GG/1/7/355] . I remember my mother singing something very similar to me as a small child, and almost everyone knows a slightly different version. Although this one is a Hampshire variant it gets the full East Anglian treatment here, as that is where I sing it most often. It has verses that crop up in The Darling Boy and The Bonny Light Horseman and as such seems a good way to finish an album called Floating Verses.

Craig Morgan Robson sang The Blackbird on their 2006 CD Stranded. They noded

Songs such as the Bonny Moorhen and The Blackbird provided a coded message, a relatively safe way of signalling political allegiance to the Jacobite Cause, at a time when an open expression of loyalties could be decidedly life threatening. According to Hogg's Jacobite Relics (1821), The Blackbird seems to have been one of the street songs of the day; at least it is much in that style and totally different from the manner of most Jacobite songs. This version was collected from a Mr Fairley who was a school teacher in Tweedsmuir.

Gordeanna McCulloch sang I'm a Peer Rovin Lassie at the Fife Traditional Singing Festival, Collessie, Fife in May 2007. This recording was released in the following year on the festival anthology Nick-Knack on the Waa (Old Songs & Bothy Ballads Volume 4). The album's liner notes commented:

A fine tune and the repeat chorus lines of “When I look tae yon high hills” make this a great song for audience participation.

Barbara Brown sang The Blackbird in 2008 on her and Tom Brown's WildGoose CD Beyond the Quay. They noted:

[…] Another E.F.D.S. publication, Garners Gay, was Barbara’s source for The Blackbird. It was collected by Fred Hamer from the wonderful Shropshire singer May Bradley who said she had heard “a modern song like it”, but preferred to sing it “in the old way”—we’re with you, May!

Maggie Sand and Sandragon sang If I Were a Blackbird, in 2009 on their WildGoose CD Susie Fair. She noted:

Versions of this songs have been found in Ireland, Canada, the USA and England. It is believed to date from sometime before about 1925.

The Askew Sisters sang If I Was a Blackbird, with words very near to Miss Lee's and adding the last verse from Henry Lee, on their 2010 WildGoose CD Through Lonesome Woods. They noted:

This lovely waltzy version was collected by George Gardiner from Mrs Etheridge in Southampton in June 1906. However, the text was incomplete, so Gardiner placed an ad in the Hampshire Chronicle appealing for other verses. He received a reply from [Mr Henry] Lee of Whitchurch containing a full set of verses [VWML GG/1/7/355] (which we sing here) and [his] letter can still be found in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at Cecil Sharp House.

This video shows the Askew Sisters at their 10th anniversary concert at The Foundling Museum, London, on 11 September 2015:

Liz Davenport sang If I Were a Blackbird in 2015 on her and Paul Davenport's Hallamshire Tradition CD Spring Tide Rising. They noted:

From the singing of May Bradley. Our son Gavin sings this on Crucible's Changeling [WildGoose, 2003]. The girl in the song seems to regard literacy as being an act of magic equal to shape-shifting which gives an indication of the way in which the illiterate classes viewed those who could both read and write! Spelling? Oh, yes, in the oldest sense of the word!

Sam Lee learned Blackbird from the singing of May Bradley and sang in on his 2015 CD The Fade in Time.

Jerry Simon sang If I Was a Blackbird at a Kelham Island singing session that was released in 2013 on the Seville House CD Kelham Island Voices.

Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys sang If I Were a Blackbird on their 2017 CD Pretty Peggy. They noted:

A traditional Irish song with the genders swapped.

Lyrics

Henry Lee's If I Was a Blackbird Miss Lee sings If I Was a Blackbird

I am a poor girl and my fortune seems sad,
Six months have I courted a true sailor lad;
Ad truly I loved him by night and by day
And now in his transport he's sailed far away.

When I was a young girl my fortune was sad,
I once went a-courting a true sailor lad;
I courted him fondly by night and by day
But now for a sailor he's gone far away.

Chorus (repeated after each verse):
If I was a blackbird, could whistle and sing,
I'd follow the vessel my true love sails in;
And on the top rigging there I'd build my nest
And lay my head all night on his lily-white breast.

Chorus (repeated after each verse):
If I were a blackbird I'd whistle and sing,
And follow the vessel my true love sails in;
And on the top rigging there build my nest
And lay there all night on his lily-white breast.

My love's tall and handsome in every degree,
His parents despise him because he loves me;
But let them despise him and say what they will,
While I've breath in my body I'll love my true love still.

My love's tall and handsome in every degree,
His parents despise him because he loves me;
Although they despise him, and say what they may,
With breath in my body I'll love him always

He promised he'd meet me at Bonnybrook Fair
With a bunch of blue ribbons to tie up my hair;
And if he would meet me I'd crown him with joy,
And kiss those fond lips of my dear, young sailor boy.

He promised to meet me at Bonnybrook Fair
With a bunch of blue ribbons to tie up my hair;
And if I should meet him I'd crown him with joy
And kiss the sweet lips of my true sailor boy.

If I was a scholar, could handle my pen,
Just one private letter to him I would send.
I'd write and I'd tell him of my grief and woe
And far o'er the oceans with my true love I would go.

Maggie Boyle sings If I Were a Blackbird The Askew Sisters sing If I Was a Blackbird

When I was a young girl my fortune was sad,
I once went a-courting a true sailor lad;
I courted him dearly by night and by day
But now for a sailor he's gone far away.

Chorus (repeated after each verse):
If I were a blackbird I'd whistle and sing,
And I'd follow the ship that my true love sails in.
And on the top rigging, I'd there build my nest
And I'd lay down my head on his lily-white breast.

Chorus (repeated after each verse):
If I were a blackbird I'd whistle and sing,
I'd follow that vessel my true love sails in;
And on the top rigging I'd there build my nest
And lay there all night on his lily-white breast.

I am a young maiden and my story is sad,
For once I was courted by a brave sailor lad.
He courted me strongly by night and by day,
But now my dear sailor has sailed far away.

My love's tall and handsome in every degree,
His parents despise him because he loves me;
Although they despise him, and say what they may,
With breath in my body I'll love him always.

He promised to take me to Donnybrook Fair
To buy me red ribbons to bind up my hair.
And when he returned from the ocean so wide,
He'd take me and make me his own loving bride.

He promised to meet me at Bonnybrook Fair
And buy me blue ribbons to tie in my hair;
And if I should meet him I'd crown him with joy
And kiss the sweet lips of my true sailor boy.

His parents they slight me and will not agree
That I and my sailor boy married shall be.
But when he returns I will greet him with joy
And take to my bosom my dear sailor boy.

If I were a scholar, could handle my pen,
Just one private letter to him I would send.
I'd write and I'd tell him of my grief and woe
And far o'er the oceans with him I would go.

May Bradley sings If I Were a Blackbird Peta Webb sings I Am a Poor Girl

Now it's of a fair damsel my fortune were had
I were overcourted by a rakish young lad.
I have kept me love's company night and be day
But now Johnny's lifted, sure he's gone far away.

My love's an old soldier but he's neat, tall and thin.
There is none in the army come equal to him.
With his red rosy cheeks and his curly black hair
His flattering tongue draws my heart to a snare.

Now some people's talking I'm out of my mind.
Some people says that I'm large with a child
But it's let them be talking and say what they will
For the love I've got for him I'll keep it up still.

Now if I were a scholar I'd handle me pen
I would write him a letter, to him would I send.
God sends him safe sailings and fair winds to blow
There is adieu to my true love wherever he go.

Now if I were a blackbird I'd whistle, I'd sing
I would follow the ship that my true love sailed in
On the top of his mainmast I would build my nest
That long night, sure I'd gaze upon his lily white breast.

I am a poor girl and my life it is sad,
For it's once I was courted by a rakish young man.
Well, it's once I was a-courted by night, noon and day
Ah, but now my love has left me and he's gone far away.

Oh, my love he's a bandsman and his fingers long and small
He plays on the pipes sweetest music of all.
With his red rosy cheeks, love, and his dark rolling eye,
While there's breath in my body I will love my fine boy.

Ah, there's something that tells me that my love won't be long
And it more often tells me that my love won't live long.
So then let them all be talking, let them say what they will,
While there's breath in my body I will love my love still.

Ah, for love it is a killing thing, did you ever feel the pain?
But I've a bunch of green ribbons my love to adorn.
And if ever he comes back to me, I will crown my love's joy
And I'll will kiss those fond lips of my darling fine boy.

Harry Brazil sings If I Were a Blackbird Gordeanna McCulloch sings I'm a Peer Rovin Lassie

I were a young girl my age were sixteen
I fell in love with some rakish young man
My friends slight me because he were poor
He's me ain bonny lad that I'll never see no more

I’m a peer rovin lassie an my fortune’s been bad,
Since I fell in love wi a young sailor lad;
I wis coorted sae early by night and by day,
And the lad I loe dearly lies a distance frae me.

If I were a blackbird I'd whistle and sing
I'd follow the ship that my true love sails in
There on the top rigging I'd there build my nest
I would lay my brown hair on his lily white breast

Chorus:
When I look tae yon high hills an ma laddie's na there,
When I look tae yon high hills it maks ma hairt sair;
When I look tae yon high hills an a tear blins ma ee,
And the lad I loe dearly lies a distance frae me.

If I was a scholar I'd handle my pen
Some love letters to my love I'd send
And in case I would meet him I'd crown him with joy
And kiss the fair cheeks of my bold Irish boy

My friends and relations, they've aa joined in one,
Tae pairt me and my true love, they've done aa they can;
Tae pairt me and my true love, they've done aa they know,
But the lad I loe dearly, he will love me more so.

I've searched in the highlands, I've searched everywhere
I've searched in the lowlands, but I couldn't find him there.
He may cast his eye on ... some foreign shore
He's me ain bonny lad that I'll never see no more.

Then a bunch o blue ribbons tae ma love I'll prepare,
And through the lang summer I'll gie him tae wear;
And when he comes back again I'll crown him wi joy,
And I'll kiss the sweet lips o my young sailor boy.

(Chorus)

Silly Wizard sing If I Was a Blackbird

I am a young sailor, my story is sad,
Though once I was carefree and a brave sailor lad,
I courted a lassie by night and by day,
Oh but now she has left me, and sailed far away.

Chorus (after each verse):
Oh, if I was a blackbird, could whistle and sing,
I'd follow the vessel my true love sails in,
And in the top riggin’ I would there build my nest,
And I’d flutter my wings o’er her lily-white breast.

Or if I was a scholar and could handle the pen,
One secret love letter to my true love I’d send,
And tell of my sorrow, my grief and my pain
Since she’s gone and left me on yon flowery glen.

I sailed o’er the ocean, my fortune to seek,
Though I missed her caress and her kiss on my cheek.
I returned and I told her my love was still warm
But she turned away lightly and great was her scorn.

I offered to take her to Donnybrook Fair
And to buy her fine ribbons to tie up her hair.
I offered to marry and to stay by her side
But she says in the morning she sails with the tide.

My parents, they chide me, oh they will not agree,
Saying that me and my false love, married should never be.
Oh, but let them deprive me, or let them do what they will,
While there’s breath in my body she’s the one I love still.

Links

See also Jon Wilks' Folk from the Attic blog Whitchurch, Hampshire and the songs of Henry Lee.