> The Young Tradition > Songs > Pretty Nancy of Yarmouth

“Note to self: Don't call your audience a bunch of Nancies.”
Fay Hield

(Pretty) Nancy of Yarmouth

[ Roud 407 ; Ballad Index R078 ; VWML LEB/9/132/1 ; Bodleian Roud 407 ; trad.]

There are several quite different songs that all share the generic title Nancy of Yarmouth.

George Townshend sang Pretty Nancy from Yarmouth in two recordings made by Brian Matthews and Ken Stubbs in 1960. They were published on his Musical Tradition anthology Come, Hand to Me the Glass. The booklet notes commented:

Many songs and ballads tell of the exploits of a young girl called Nancy. One lengthy ballad, which runs to fifty-six verses in some versions, is called The Yarmouth Tragedy or Nancy of Yarmouth and when John Pitts first printed this present song in the early 19th century he gave it the title Nancy of London to distinguish it from the longer, and better known, The Yarmouth Tragedy. Well, that was the idea. Singers, however, had other ideas and when one encounters the song nowadays, be it East Anglia or along the American Maritime coast where it it highly popular, the sailor's sweetheart is usually said to live in Yarmouth.

Only four other sound recordings are known to Roud—and all are from Suffolk. In fact of the 18 English instances of the song, except for this batch of fairly recent East Anglian recordings, all are from the Southwest … and Eva M. Ashton collected an example from Edmund Pack, of Robertsbridge, Sussex, in 1906. George's version seems to have got a line from The Bold Princess Royal into his penultimate verse.

Fred Ling, George Ling and Cyril Poacher of Blaxhall, Suffolk, sang Nancy of Yarmouth with similar verses. Fred Ling sang it in a recording made by Peter Kennedy in the 1950s on the anthology Sailormen and Servingmaids (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 6; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1970). Cyril Poacher was recorded in his home in Stone Common, Blaxhall, Suffolk in 1974 by Tony Engle and Keith Summers, and published in 1975 on the Topic album The Broomfield Wager: Traditional Songs from Suffolk and in 1998 on the Topic anthology We've Received Orders to Sail (The Voice of the People Series Volume 12). George Ling was recorded in 1974 too by Keith Summers. This was published on the Ling Family's LP Singing Traditions of a Suffolk Family.

The Young Tradition sang Pretty Nancy of Yarmouth in 1966 on their eponymous first album, The Young Tradition. The album's liner notes commented:

This version was collected in Middlesbrough, Yorkshire. There are many songs with this title; some have parallel texts, others dwell on the hardships of a sailor's life at sea, giving no account of the girl's marriage to another, which is the subject of this variant.

Two versions of Nancy of Yarmouth, or Nancy from London, were printed in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society, Vol. 3, No. 11 (1907), pp. 101-103. They were collected by H.E.D. Hammond from Mr J. Elliott at Todber, September 1905. and from Miss Forsey at Whatton, May 1906. The second one just shares the first verse with the Young Tradition but then goes on to the hardships of sailors in a storm. Oak's Pretty Nancy of Yarmouth is quite similar to this. They sang it at Benfleet Folk Club, The Hoy and Helmet, Benfleet in 1972 in a recording made by Keith Summers. This was included on their Musical Traditions double CD, Country Songs and Music. Rod Stradling commented in the album's booklet:

Many songs and ballads tell of the exploits of a young girl called Nancy. One lengthy ballad, which runs to fifty-six verses in some versions, is called The Yarmouth Tragedy or Nancy of Yarmouth and when John Pitts first printed our present song in the early 1800's he gave it the title Nancy of London to distinguish it from the longer, and better known Nancy of Yarmouth. Well, that was the idea. Singers, however, had other ideas and when one encounters the song nowadays, be it in East Anglia or along the American Maritime coast where it is highly popular, the sailor's sweetheart is usually said to live in Yarmouth.

(An interesting aside: Nancy of Yarmouth using the tune we sing here appeared on The Young Tradition's LP for Transatlantic in 1966. The sleeve notes say: “This version was collected in Middlesbrough, Yorkshire.” Now, Steve Roud's index shows 37 published entries of Nancy of Yarmouth and not one of them is noted as coming from Middlesbrough. Moreover, the only singer collected in Middlesbrough that anyone seems to know about is Arthur Wood and apparently the song is not in his published repertoire. Heather Wood doesn't know where Peter Bellamy got it from.)

Brian Peters sang Pretty Nancy of Yarmouth in 2003 on his CD Different Tongues.

John Tams sang Pretty Nancy in 2005 on his Topic CD The Reckoning.

Jon Boden sang Pretty Nancy of Yarmouth as the October 19, 2010 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day where he commented: “I got this from a book, Green Grow the Laurels I think, or one of those. The chorus is my own addition.” His version, again, is similar to the last three.

Ken Stubbs: The Life of a Man Fay Hield sang Pretty Nancy in 2012 on her CD with the Hurricane Party, Orfeo. She commented in her liner notes:

There are several quite different songs that share the generic title Nancy of Yarmouth. Indeed, many a female starring role in a folk song goes under the name of Nancy, and in the infamous ballad world the vast majority of sailors' sweetheart are to be found residing in Yarmouth. This version comes from the singing of George Townshend, a farm labourer and railway policeman of Lewes, Sussex in 1960, found in Ken Stubbs' collection The Life of a Man: English Folk Songs from the Home Counties (1970). We added the chorus in our house because we like singing along.

This amateur video shows Fay Hield singing Pretty Nancy at Shrewsbury Folk Festival in 2011:

To confuse matters more, A.L. Lloyd's first recording of Farewell Nancy (Roud 527; Laws K14), in 1962 on his and Ewan MacColl's Transatlantic LP A Sailor's Garland, was called Nancy of Yarmouth too.

Andy Turner learned Nancy of Yarmouth from Fred Ling's recording and sang it as the August 26, 2013 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week.

Lyrics

George Townshend sings Pretty Nancy from Yarmouth on The Life of a Man

Pretty Nancy from Yarmouth, o my joy and delight!
It's of a kind letter I am now going to write;
It is to inform you what we undergo
All on the salt sea, my love, where the stormy winds blow.

'Twas early one evening, just before it grew dark,
Our captain came to us and he showed us a mark;
He showed us a mark, boys, from Zeus in the sky,
He said he was sure there was a storm very nigh.

'Twas early the next morning just before it grew day
Our captain came to us and these words he did say,
“Be all of good heart, boys, be all of good cheer,
For whilst we have sea-roads, brave boys, never fear.”

It's well, my dearest jewel, how we were toss'd about
Like an army of soldiers going forth for to fight.
A soldier may fly to his sword or his gun
But a sailor must submit to his watery tomb.

George Townshend sings Pretty Nancy of Yarmouth in Come, Hand to Me the Glass

Pretty Nancy of Yarmouth, our joy and delight!
It's of a kind letter I'm now going to write;
It is to inform you what we undergo
All on the salt sea, my love, where the stormy winds blow.

It was early one evening just before it grew dark,
Our captain came to us and he showed us a mark;
He showed us a mark, boys, produced in the sky,
He said he was sure there was a storm very nigh.

It was early next morning just before it grew day
Our captain came to us and these words he did say,
“Be all of good heart, boys, be all of good cheer,
For whilst we have sea-roads, brave boys, never fear.”

You see, my dearest jewel, how we were toss'd about
Like an army of soldiers going forth for to fight.
But a soldier may fly to his sword or his gun
But a sailor must submit to his watery tomb.

The Young Tradition sing Pretty Nancy of Yarmouth

Pretty Nancy of Yarmouth, she's my own heart's delight
And a long and kind letter unto her I did write;
All for to inform her what we had to undergo
While sailing on the ocean where stormy winds blow.

On the eighteenth of October our barque it set sail,
Pretty Nancy came down for to bid me farewell;
She said, “While you're sailing on the wild wastes of blue,”
She said, “My young sailor, I'll be faithful to you.”

Long years then did pass when back I did return
Pretty Nancy was married, had a home of her own,
While I was a-sailing on the wide restless sea,
Pretty Nancy proved faithless and false unto me.

Come all you young sailors and listen to me
And never leave the lass you love for to plough the salt sea.
For while you are sailing on the wide ocean blue,
She'll prove faithless like Nancy of Yarmouth to you.

Nancy of Yarmouth (Nancy from London) in Journal of the Folk-Song Society, Vol. 3, No. 11 (1907), pp. 101-103

Collected by H.E.D. Hammond from Mr J. Elliott at Todber, September 1905.

It's Nancy from London from the fair inland stream;
She was courted by William, he belongs to the sea;
She was courted by William a long time ago.
He's on the sea sailing where the stormy winds blow.

Oh! the stormy winds blow, boys, and make my pillow shake;
They make my room-window for to shiver and shake.
God knows where my love lies so far from the shore,
I'll pray for her welfare—what can I do more?

When the sailors are sailing, drink a health to their wives,
For they love their sweethearts, as they love their lives.
Here's a punch going round, my boys, here's a full glass in hand,
Here's a health to loving Nancy that I leave on dry land.

Oh! it's Nancy my jewel, my joy and heart's delight,
Here is one lovely letter I'm going for to write;
Here is one lovely letter for to let you know
That I'm on the sea sailing where the stormy winds blow.

Collected by H.E.D. Hammond from Miss Forsey at Whatton, May 1906.

Pretty Nancy of Yarmouth, my joy and delight,
It's of a kind letter I going for to write.
And it is to inform you what we undergo
All on the salt seas, boa, where the stormy winds blow.

Now a ship in distress is a most dismal sight
Like an army of soldiers just going to fight,
But a soldier can fly from his most dismal doom,
But poor sailor must submit to his watery tomb.

It was early one evening just before it was dark,
Our honourary bold captain kindly showed us the mark
From what we can now, boys perceive in the sky,
Oh! he told us for sure that a storm it was nigh.

Like the rollings of thunder we were tossed about,
Which made many a poor sailor through valiant and stout
So shaking and a-shivering betwixt hope and despair,
One moment down below, my boys, and the next in the air.

It was early one morning just before it was day,
Our honourary bold captain unto us did say:
“Be all of good heart, boys, be of a good cheer,
For whilst we have see-room, brave boys, never fear.”

Oak sing Pretty Nancy of Yarmouth

Pretty Nancy of Yarmouth, you're my own heart's delight
And a long and kind letter unto you I will write;
Being for to inform you what we do undergo
While we're sailing on the ocean where stormy winds blow.

It happened one evening after it had grown dark;
Our honourable brave captain, well, he showed us a mark.
And the mark that he showed us it appeared in the sky,
And he showed us and he told us that the storm was close by.

She come a-bearing down after us and she tossed us about,
Causing many a bold sailor lad with courage so stout
To go a-shiverin' and a-shakin' in hope and despair;
She's one moment in the ocean and the next in the air.

A ship in distress, love, is a most dis-i-mal sight,
Like an army of soldier boys going out for a fight.
For a soldier he can fight, my lads, to the rattling of a drum
Whilst a sailor's is committed to a watery doom.

Sweet Nancy of Yarmouth, you're my own heart's delight
And while I'm on the ocean, here's a letter I'll write,
Being for to inform you what we do undergo
While we're sailing on the ocean where stormy winds blow.

Cyril Poacher sings Nancy of Yarmouth

Oh, it's Nancy of Yarmouth, she's my joy and delight
I have a long letter I am going to write;
It is to inform you what we undergo
All on the salt sea, boys, where the stormy winds blow.

It happened one night just before it grew dark;
Our bold admirable captain he showed us the mark.
The mark that he showed us it appeared in the sky,
How he showed us, how he told us, that the storm was nearby.

It came rattling down like thunder and it tossed us about,
Caused many a bold seaman with hearts bold and stout
They stood shivering and shaking through hope and despair,
One moment in the ocean and the next in the air.

Oh, a ship in distress is a most dismal sight,
Like an army of soldiers, they are going to fight.
A soldier he can fight, my boys, by the sound of his gun
Whilst a sailor is committed to a watery tomb.

George Ling sings Nancy of Yarmouth

Oh, it's Nancy of Yarmouth, she's my joy and delight
It is of a kind letter I am going to write;
It is to inform you what we undergo
All on the salt sea, boys, where the stormy wind blow.

So it happened one night just before it grew dark;
Our brave honourous captain and he show us the mark.
The mark that he showed us did appear in the sky,
And he showed us, how he told us, that the storm was nearby.

Now it came rattling down like thunder and it tossed us about,
And many a brave seaman with their hearts bold and stout
They stood shivering and shaking through hope and despair,
One moment in the ocean and the next in the air.

What can I do for him so far from the shore?
I can make for my sailor what can I do more?

Jon Boden and Fay Hield sing Pretty Nancy of Yarmouth

Pretty Nancy of Yarmouth, you're my joy and delight
It's you that I dream of by day and by night.
I write for to tell you what we undergo
All on the salt seas where the stormy winds blow.

Chorus (repeated after each verse):
So here's to the sailors to battle they go
Where the cannon loudly rattle and the stormy winds blow.

It happened one evening just before it grew dark,
Our captain came to us and he showed us the mark;
He showed us the mark, m'boys, like Zeus in the sky,
“Oh reef up your topsails, there's a storm blowing nigh.”

It happened next morning just before break of day
Our captain came to us and this he did say,
“Be all of good heart, m'boys, be all of good cheer,
For while we at sea roam, brave boys, never fear.”

All all my dearest jewel how we were tossed about
Like an army's soldier going forth for to fight.
A soldier can fight with his sword and his gun
But a sailor must submit to his watery tomb.