> Folk Music > Songs > If I Were a Blackbird / I Am a Young Maiden

If I Were a Blackbird / I Am a Young Maiden

[ Roud 387 ; Ballad Index FSC38 ; Full English GG/1/7/356 ; Wiltshire Roud 387 ; trad.]

Albert ‘Diddy’ Cook sang Blackbird in a recording supervised by A.L. Lloyd in The Eel's Foot Inn, Eastbridge, Suffolk, on May 13, 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).

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.

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.

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).

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 spatched together, a verse from here, another from there, including If I Were a Blackbird.

Maggie Boyle sang If I Were a Blackbird on Steve Tilston's and her 1992 album Of Moor and Mesa. Their liner notes commented:

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.

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

The Askew Sisters sang If I Were a Blackbird in 2010 on their WildGoose CD Through Lonesome Woods. They commented in their liner notes:

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 Mrs Lee of Whitchurch containing a full set of verses (which we sing here) and her 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 September 11, 2015:


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 theem 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.

Maggie Boyle sings If I Were a Blackbird The Askew Sisters sing If I Were 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 to him I would go.


See also the Mudcat Café thread Lyr Req: If I Was a Blackbird.