> A.L. Lloyd > Songs > A Sailor's Life
> Martin Carthy > Songs > A Sailor's Life
> Sandy Denny > Songs > A Sailor's Life
> The Watersons > Songs > Sweet William / Willie the Bold Sailor Boy

A Sailor's Life / Sweet William / Willie the Bold Sailor Boy

[ Roud 273 ; Laws K12 ; G/D 6:1245 ; Ballad Index LK12 ; VWML FS/S160215 ; Bodleian Roud 273 ; Wiltshire 1194 ; trad.]

Folk Songs collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams English County Songs The Everlasting Circle The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs One Hundred English Folksongs The Scottish Folksinger The Singing Island The Valiant Sailor Traveller's Joy Travellers' Songs from England and Scotland Songs from North-East Scotland

Vagrant Songs of Scotland The Road from Connemara The Reckoning Flatback Paper Linkin' O'er the Lea The Hardy Sons of Dan The Hawthorn Spring Johnny There My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean Romany Roots Moving On Songbooks The Travelling Songster Rogue's Gallery No. 1 Scottish Songs Sung in Suffolk The 13th Bedroom Full Circle Burnt Offering Sailormen and Servingmaids A Basketful of Oysters When Cecil Left the Mountains Vintage II: On the Road 1972-1980 The Guv'nor Vol 1

W.P. Merrick collected A Sailor's Life in 1899 from Henry Hills of Lodsworth, Sussex [VWML FS/S160215] . This version was published by Ralph Vaughan Williams and A.L. Lloyd in 1959 in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. In the following year, A.L. Lloyd recorded it for the album A Selection from the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. Like all tracks from this LP it was reissued in 2003 on the CD England & Her Traditional Songs. Lloyd wrote in the album's sleeve notes:

A song as touching and innocent as the wood engravings that broadside printers used to put at the head of ballad sheets. It is known to sundry tunes all over the British Isles and in America (a Wisconsin set, called The Pinery Boy, transforms the sailor into a lumberjack). Most versions end with the girl ordering her own funeral, and directing that a marble dove be set over her grave, but in fact this motif belongs more properly to the song Died for Love, and Mr Henry Hills, of Lodsworth, Sussex, who sang our version to W.P. Merrick in 1899, would have none of it.

Harry Cox sang Sweet William to Peter Kennedy in London in December 1953. This recording was included in 2000 on his Rounder anthology What Will Become of England?.

Charlie Scamp sang Come, Father, Build Me a Boat to Peter Kennedy and Maud Karpeles at Chartham Hatch, near Canterbury, Kent, on 15 January 1954. This recording was included in 2012 on the Topic anthology of songy by Southern English Gypsy traditional singers, I'm a Romany Ray.

Ewan MacColl sang My Sailor Boy and Peggy Seeger sang Sweet William in 1975 on their Riverside album Matching Songs of the British Isles and America. Editor Kenneth S. Goldstein noted:

This song has long been a favourite on both sides of the Atlantic. In some versions, the lost lover is identified as a soldier, in others as a sailor, and in some, his trade goes unmentioned; but in all cases, the young lady hears of his death from the captain of a passing ship. Very often the ballad ending borrows lines from The Butcher Boy, in which the young lady requests pen and paper and writes a letter instructing how she should be buried. Numerous nineteenth century broadsides of the ballad were printed in Britain, though the great variation in collected texts indicates a long life in oral tradition. MacColl's Scottish version was learned from his mother. Miss Seeger's version is a composite, both textually and melodically, of many variants collected by Sharp in the Southern Appalachians.

Shirley Collins sang this song as Sweet William in 1958 on her first album, Sweet England. The album's sleeve notes commented:

One of the best known English lyric songs with a variant tune. The words are from English County Songs by Lucy Broadwood and J. Maitland and the tune is arranged by Shirley Collins.

Martin Carthy recorded A Sailor's Life in 1966 for his Second Album. He noted:

Often adapted to fit other occupations this is one of a group of songs which includes Early Early All in the Spring and the American song on the same theme, Sailor on the Deep Blue Sea. It was published in various broadsides in the 18th century, but often became confused with Died for Love. It is printed in the The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs.

Martin Carthy's future brother-in-law, Mike Waterson sang Died for Love in 1969 at Folk Union One, the former Watersons' own folk club held at the Blue Bell. This was recorded for the privately pressed LP Blue Bell Folk. The liner notes commented:

Mike is the last remaining member of the Waterson Family at the Bluebell. He is a great influence on many of the other singers and is one of the founder members of “Folk Union One”. The ballad, Died for Love, has many variants, some of which have survived and remain in our own memories due to the need for self entertainment. During the last two wars it was learnt by most servicemen, be they Air Force, Army or Navy.

Mike Waterson also sang Sweet William live at the Down River Folk Club, Loughton, on 20 October 1974, together with the Watersons' Pace-Egging Song and Boston Harbour. All three tracks were included in 2004 on the Watersons' 4CD anthology Mighty River of Song. Mike Waterson noted:

We learnt this version of Sweet William from Margaret Birkett of Elterwater—the wife of Frank Birkett from whom we had Dido Bendigo.

Martin and Eliza Carthy sang Died for Love in 2014 on their duo album, The Moral of the Elephant, commenting in their sleeve notes on Mike's version.

A Sailor's Life is one of Sandy Denny's folk club songs which she added to Fairport Convention's repertoire, and it proved to be the turning point of Fairport's history from earlier contemporary Americana to English songs. An early live studio recording turned up on Richard Thompson's 3 CD set, Watching the Dark. This was apparently transcribed from an acetate recording which everyone had forgotten about. Another early version, a life recording from the beginning of 1969, was finally made available in 2002 on the anthology Fairport unConventionAl. The first officially released version on the 1969 album Unhalfbricking added Dave Swarbrick on violin, showing what would become of Fairport in the following years. This track was also reissued on The History of Fairport Convention, on Fairport's double CD compilation Meet on the Ledge: The Classic Years 1967-1975, in 2004 on the 5CD Fledg'ling Sandy Denny anthology A Boxful of Treasures, and in 2005 on the Island anthology Strangely Strange But Oddly Normal.

A version recorded at Cropredy 1987 was released on the video It All Comes 'Round Again. The line up on this track is Richard Thompson, Simon Nicol, Dave Mattacks, Ric Sanders, Maartin Allcock and June Tabor (vocals).

This song was also covered by Vikki Clayton in 1994 on her Sandy Denny tribute album, It Suits Me Well.

Dave and Toni Arthur sang Father Father Build Me a Boat on their 1969 Topic album The Lark in the Morning. They noted:

This song appears in various versions, under such titles as: Sweet William and A Sailor's Life. It has been collected all over Great Britain, America, and Canada. In Wisconsin it became adapted to the life of the loggers and raftsmen. The words used here were collected by Frank Kidson from Mrs Hollings, a Lincolnshire charwoman [VWML FK/2/89] . Mrs Hollings had three verses we do not sing. In these, the young girl writes an anguished letter about the loss of her true love, and is found hanging from a beam by her father. We have added a verse from Gavin Greig’s Folk-Song of the North-East. The tune is in Folk Song Journal No. 3 under the title of A Sailor's Life. It is reproduced in Ralph Vaughan Williams and A.L. Lloyd's The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, p. 94.

Martyn Wyndham-Read sang The Lost Sailor (A Sailor's Life) in 1971 on his eponymous Trailer album Martyn Wyndham-Read.

Frankie Armstrong sang The Sailor Boy in 1973 on the Topic album The Valiant Sailor accompanying Roy Palmer's book of the same name. This track was included in 2000 on the Fellside reissue of her 1972 album Lovely on the Water.

Norman Perks sang Early, Early in the Spring to Mike Yates at Hawkesbury Upton, Avon, in 1975. This recording was released in 1987-95 on the Veteran cassette The Horkey Load Vol 2 (VT109) and in 2001 on the Veteran CD anthology of traditional folk music from coastal England, When the Wind Blows. Mike Yates commented:

A highly popular song that probably dates from the 18th century. Cecil Sharp noted no less than eleven English versions, usually under the title Sweet William, as well as finding a dozen further sets in the Appalachian Mountains of North America. Norman's final verses—where the girl is discovered by her father—are sometimes found as a separate song, entitled 'Died for Love. Maggie Murphy of Co. Fermanagh also sings a fine version.

Liz Jefferies sang Willie, the Bold Sailor Boy in September 1976 in her own home in Bristol, recorded by Barry and Chris Morgan. This was included on the 1998 Topic anthology O'er His Grave the Grass Grew Green (The Voice of the People Series Volume 3).

Devon traveller Sophie Isaacs sang Sweet Willie to Sam Richards, Tish Stubbs and Paul Wilson in 1974-1976; Her recording was included in 1979 on the Topic anthology Devon Tradition.

Sophie Isaacs’s performance of Father, Father Build Me a Boat arose spontaneously in a local pub. No sobbing here, and few other recent influences too. The style is direct, unadorned, and very effective—more typical of older travellers.

Danny Brazil sang My Love Willie in his caravan in Staverton, Gloucestershire, on 6 October 1977 to Gwilym Davies. His recording was included in 2007 on the Brazil Family's Musical Tradition anthology Down By the Old Riverside.

Alison McMorland and Peta Webb sang Sailing's a Weary Life in 1980 on their eponymous Topic album, Alison McMorland & Peta Webb. They give Lucy Stewart of Fetterangus as their source. Alison McMorland returned to this song in 2000 on her Tradition Bearers CD of Scots songs and ballads, Cloudberry Day.

Kate Delaney sang The Lost Sailor in 1981 on Gordon McIntyre's and her Larrikin album Blackwaterside.

Pat Ryan sang The Lost Sailor in 1983 on her Traditional Sound Recordings album Moving On.

Mikeen McCarthy sang this song as Early in the Month of Spring in a recording made by Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie on the title track of the 1986 VWML cassette of songs and a story of Irish Travellers, Early in the Month of Spring. This cassette was included in 2003 on the Musical Tradition anthology of songs of Irish travellers in England, From Puck to Appleby.

Fred Jordan sang Sweet William on his 1991 EFDSS cassette In Course of Time. This recording was included in 2003 on his posthumous Veteran anthology A Shropshire Lad.

Jo Freya sang A Sailor's Life in 1992 on her Saydisc album Traditional Songs of England. The liner notes commented:

Sung to Percy Merrick by Henry Hills, Lodsworth, Sussex in 1899 [VWML FS/S160215] . This song has been collected in various guises throughout England and has a connection with the well-known song Died for Love. It exists in published broadside versions and travelled to North America where it has been commonly reported including an adaption to the life of a timber-raftsman.

Elizabeth Stewart sang Sailin, Sailin on her 1992 cassette 'Atween You an' Me. This recording was also included in 2004 on her Elphinstone Institute CD Binnorie.

Finest Kind sang A Sailor's Life on their 1999 album Heart's Delight. They noted:

Despite the title, this ballad is really about the sailor’s unfortu nate sweetheart who follows him to sea and dies for love. Ian [Robb] learned it 30 years ago in the English folksong clubs, but it has been around for a long time. Maine folksong scholar Fannie Eckstorm writes about her father travelling in the late 1830s: “At a woods tavern or ‘shanty’ where he stopped, a very drunken teamster was alternately busy in trying to roll up his employer in a dirty quilt until he looked like a cocoon, and in singing this song:

And e-ve-ry ship tha-at she-e passed by
She did inquire for her sailor bo-eee!

A comical image of a rather desolate song.”

Bob Lewis sang this song as My Boy Jimmy at a concert he did with Bob Copper at Nellie’s Folk Club, The Rose and Crown Hotel, Tonbridge, Kent, on 17 October 1999. This concert was released in 2017 on their Musical Traditions CD The Two Bobs' Worth.

Elspeth Cowie sang A Sailor's Life on her 2000 CD Naked Voice.

Freyja sang A Sailor's Life in 2000 on their Osmosys album One Bathroom.

Kathryn Roberts sang Sailor Boy in 2001 on Equation's EP The Dark Ages. Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman recorded it again for their 2020 album On Reflection.

Kate Burke and Ruth Hazleton sang The Lost Sailor on their 2002 album Swapping Seasons. They also included an archival recording of Simon McDonald singing The Lost Sailor that was collected and recorded by Norm O'Connor in 1965.

Norma Waterson sang Willie the Bold Sailor Boy in 2003 on the “English” CD of the Fellside anthology of English traditional songs and their Australian variants, Song Links. Edgar Waters noted in the album's booklet:

This song exists in many versions and has been published under many names. Some versions are fragmentary, or contain verses that do not appear to belong to it, making the texts seem almost incomprehensible. In one form or another, it has been widely recorded from oral tradition all over the British Isles and in North America. Norma Waterson's version was learnt from a singer called Liz Jefferies. Liz Jefferies' version may be heard on the third of the twenty CD collection called The Voice of the People, published by Topic Records.

Cathie O'Sullivan sang the matching The Lost Sailor on the “Australian” CD of the Song Links anthology.

Alasdair Roberts sang Sweet William on his 2005 Drag City album No Earthly Man.

Andy Turner sang Early in the Month of Spring, referring to Mikeen McCarthy on the 1986 VWML cassette, as the 9 June 2012 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week.

Rob William sang Early, Early All in the Spring on his album of songs collected in 1905 by the Hammond brothers from Jane Gulliford of Combe Florey, Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Hannah Sanders sang A Sailor's Life in 2015 on her album Charms Against Sorrow.

Claire Hastings sang Sailin's a Weary Life on her 2019 CD Those Who Roam.

Emily Smith and Jamie McClennan sang Sailin's a Weary Life on their 2019 CD Small Town Stories.

Lyrics

A.L. Lloyd sings A Sailor's Life Martin Carthy sings A Sailor's Life

A sailor's life is a merry life.
They rob young girls of their hearts' delight,
Leaving them behind to sigh and mourn,
They never know when they will return.

A sailor's life is a merry life.
They robs young girls of their hearts' delight,
Leaving them behind for to weep and mourn,
They never know when they will return.

“Here's four-and-twenty all in a row,
My sweetheart cuts the brightest show.
He's proper, tall, genteel withal,
And if I don't have him,” she said, “ I'll have none at all.”

“Oh there's four-and-twenty all in a row,
My sweetheart cuts the finest show.
He's proper, tall, genteel withal,
If I don't have him I'll have none at all.”

“Oh father, fetch me a little boat,
That I might on the ocean float.
And every Queen's ship that we pass by
We'll make enquire for my sailor boy.”

“Oh father, build me a bonny boat,
That on the wide ocean I may float.
And every Queen's ship that we pass by
There I'll enquire for my sailor boy.”

We hadn't sailed long upon the deep
Before a Queen's we chanced to meet.
“You sailors all, come tell me true,
Does my sweet William sail among your crew?”

Now they had not sailed long upon the deep
Before the Queen's ship they chanced to meet.
“You sailors all, pray tell me true,
Does my sweet William sail among your crew?”

“Oh no, fair lady, he isn't here,
For he is drownded, we greatly fear.
On yon green island as we passed by,
There we lost sight of your sailor boy.”

“Oh no, fair maid, he is not here,
For he's been drownded, we greatly fear.
On yon green island as we passed by,
There we lost sight of your sailor boy.”

She wrung her hands and she tore her hair
Much like a woman in great despair.
Her little boat 'gainst a rock did run.
“How can I live now my William is gone?”

Now she wrung her hands and she tore her hair
Much like a damsel in great despair.
Her little boat 'gainst a rock did run.
“How can I live now my William is gone?”

Norma Waterson sings
Willie the Bold Sailor Boy
Sandy Denny sings
A Sailor's Life

The sailing trade is a weary life
It robs young maids of their heart's delight
It leaves them all for to sigh and mourn
To think that true lovers will ne'er return.

A sailor's life, it is a merry life.
He robs young girls of their hearts' delight.
Leaving them behind to weep and mourn,
They never know when they will return.

“Well, there's four and twenty all in a row,
My true love he makes the finest show.
He's proper tall, genteel and all,
And if I don't have him, I'll have none at all.”

“Oh father, father, build for me a boat
And on the ocean I'm bound to float.
And every sail ship that I pass by
I will enquire for my sailor boy.”

“Oh father, build for me a bonny boat,
That on the wide ocean I may float.
And every Queen's ship that we pass by,
There I'll enquire for my sailor boy.”

She was not sailing long upon the deep
A fleet of Frenchmen she chanced to meet.
“Oh captain, captain, come tell me true,
Does my love William sail on board with you?”

Well, they had not sailed long on the deep
When a Queen's ship they chanced to meet.
“You sailors all, pray tell me true,
Does my sweet William sail among your crew?”

“What sort of clothes does your true love wear
What colour being your true love's hair?”'
“His jacket's blue and his trousers white,
His curly locks tied to his waistband tight.”

“Oh no, fair maid, William is not here
He is drownded I greatly fear.
It was last evening the storm rolled by
And parted William from our topmast high.”

“Oh no, fair maiden, he is not here.
For he's been drownded we greatly fear.
On yon green island as we passed it by,
There we lost sight of your sailor boy.”

She's wrung her hands and she tore her hair,
She cursed herself in most modest fair,
Her little boat against the rocks she's run.
“How can I live now that my love has gone?”

Well, she wrung her hands and she tore her hair.
She was like a young girl in great despair.
And her little boat against a rock did run.
“How can I live now my sweet William is gone?”

With pen and paper she's wrote a song,
She's wrote it right and she has wrote it long
At every line she did shed a tear
And every verse she did cry, “William dear.”

“Come dig my grave long and dig it deep
And over me let true lovers weep
And on my breast place a small white dove
To show the world oh that I died for love.”

Shirley Collins sings Sweet WilliamMike Waterson sings Sweet William

It was early, early on a sunny day in spring
My love has listed all for to serve the king
The wind's blown high and the wind's blown low
And we parted, me and my young sailor boy

“Father, father, come build me a boat
That over the wide ocean I may go,
And every ship that I pass by
There I'll enquire of my sailor boy.”

“Oh father, far, will you build me a boat
That on the cold ocean I may float?
And every king's ship that we pass by
I'll make enquiry for my sailor boy.”

I hadn't been sailing but half an hour
Before I met a bold man-of-war,
“Captain, captain, come tell me true,
Is my sweet William on board with you?”

Why, she hadn't been a-sailing so very far upon the deep
When did her first king ship she chanced to meet,
It's, “Captain, captain, tell me true,
Does my sweet William sail on board with you?”

“What colour is your true love's hair?
And what sort of jacket does your true love wear?”
“His jacket's blue, it's bright round with gold
And his hair it is the same colour as yours.”

“No, kind lady, he is not here.
That he has drownded most great I fear.
The other night when the wind blew high,
That's when we lost your sailor boy.”

“Oh no, fair maiden, I'm afraid he isn't here.
But he's been drownded and that I greatly fear.
On yon green ocean as we passed by,
There we lost sight of your young sailor boy.”

I'll sat me down, I'll write a song,
I'll write it neat and I'll write it long.
In every verse I'll shed a tear
In every line hold Willy dear.

Why, she wrung her hands a little while and tore her hair
Much like some maiden in great despair.
“Oh happy, happy is the girl,” she cried,
“What has her own true lover by her side.”

I wish I wish but it's all in vain,
I wish I was a maid again.
But a maid, a maid I'll never be,
Till apples grow on an orange tree.

Her father he, he come home late at night
His looking round for, for his sad delight
He went upstairs and the door he broke
And he found her hanging by a rope

And didn't he take him a knife so long and sharp and he cut her down
And in her bosom a note was found
Been written in blood just to testify
That for her true love William she did die

“Will you dig me a grave so very wide and so very deep
And put a marble stone at, at my head and feet
And in (the window?) a snow-white dove
Just to let the world know that I died for love.”

Fred Jordan sings Sweet William

“Oh, father, father come build me a boat
That o’er this ocean wide I may float.
And every ship that I chance to meet
I will enquire for my William sweet.”

We had not sailed more than half an hour
Before we met with a man-o-war.
“O, captain, captain, come tell me true
Is my boy, William, on board with you?”

“What colour suit did your William wear,
What was the colour of your true love’s hair?”
“Oh, he had a suit of the royal blue
And you’d know him, for his heart is true.”

“Then your boy, William, I’m sad to say,
That he was drownded the other day
On yonder island that we passed by
T’was there that we laid to rest your sailor boy.”

She wrung her hands and she tore her hair
She was a young lady in deep despair.
“O, father, father, how can I go on
How can I live now my William’s gone?

“I’ll sit me down and I’ll write me a song,
I’ll write it neat and I’ll write it long,
And in every word I’ll shed a tear
And in every line I’ll set my William, dear.

“I wish, I wish, but it’s all in vain
I wish I was a young maid again
But a maid again, I shall never be
Till apples grow on an orange tree.
A maid, a maid, I shall never be
Till apples grow on an orange tree.”

Acknowledgements

Transcription started by Reinhard Zierke with corrections by Wolfgang Hell and Garry Gillard. Thank you! However, Mike Waterson's singing on this track is very difficult to decipher and I'm sure there are still errors and mishearings, especially in the last verses.