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The Green Bed

[ Roud 276 ; Master title: The Green Bed ; Laws K36 ; G/D 1:48 ; Henry H779 ; Ballad Index LK36 ; VWML GG/1/11/639 ; Bodleian Roud 276 ; GlosTrad Roud 276 ; Wiltshire 611 ; DT JACKBED2 ; Mudcat 18316 ; trad.]

Sabine Baring-Gould, Henry Fleetwood Sheppard: Songs of the West Katherine Campbell: Songs From North-East Scotland Michael Dawney: The Ploughboy’s Glory John Holloway, Joan Black: Later English Broadside Ballads Gale Huntington: Sam Henry’s Songs of the People Roy Palmer: Folk Songs collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams Roy Palmer: Songs of the Midlands Frank Purslow: The Wanton Seed Steve Roud, Julia Bishop: The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs Ralph Vaughan Williams, A.L. Lloyd: The Penguin Book of English Folk Song

Norfolk singer Harry Cox sang The Green Bed in a recording by Leslie Shepard on 9 October 1965. This was included in 2000 on his 2 CD Topic Records anthology, The Bonny Labouring Boy. Steve Roud noted:

A reasonably common song in England and Scotland, with versions in the manuscripts of most of the Edwardian collectors, and numerous examples also in North America. The earliest known broadside printing is an early 19th century sheet by John Pitts, of London, where the song is entitled Liverpool Landlady, with a text which is quite close to Harry’s. The theme of bad treatment of the sailor on shore is common enough in traditional songs (see also Jack Tar on Shore and Miss Doxy), but here Johnny at least has the satisfaction of exposing the landlady’s tricks.

Peter Bellamy learned The Green Bed from the singing of Harry Cox and sang it with very similar words in 1969 on his second LP, Fair England’s Shore. He noted:

Both The Long Pegging Awl and The Green Bed come from Harry Cox, the former being a short and amusing song with very thin disguise to its eroticism, and the latter being a very pleasing song, which has been collected all over the country in much the same form as this, which was recorded from Harry by a good friend and singer, Rod Stradling. There is an almost identical set of verses to be found in the E.F.D.S.S. Journal, Vol. 5, which was collected on Dartmoor.

A somewhat different version was collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams and printed in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. Martin Carthy sang this version of The Green Bed unaccompanied on the 1994 CD reissue of the Fellside anthology A Selection from The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. The CD sleeve notes commented:

From Benjamin Arnold, Easton, nr. Winchester, noted in 1909 by Ralph Vaughan Williams [VWML GG/1/11/639] . It has also been collected in Warwickshire, Somerset and Devon.

During the nineteenth century the ballad press issued a large number of broadsides setting out the sailor’s disgust with the treatment received at the hand of grasping landladies and their faithless daughters.

Mick Ryan sang Green Beds in 1978 on his and Jon Burge’s Transatlantic The Leader Tradition album Fair Was the City.

The Oyster Band sang The Green Bed on their 1983 album Lie Back and Think of England.

Dave Arthur sang The Green Bed in 1997 on The Rufus Crisp Exerience’s Fellside album Chickens Are A-Crowing.

Gren Bartley sang Green Beds in 2009 on his and Tom Kitching’s Fellside album Boundary.

Compare this to Steeleye Span’s Saucy Sailor on their album Below the Salt, which is about a girlfriend who also values money more than a seemingly poor sailor.


Peter Bellamy sings The Green Bed

I will tell you a story, and a story it is one,
About a young sailor boy, his name it was John.
He’d been a very long voyage and had lately come on shore,
His money it was good, but his rigging was poor.

So he went into an ale-house where he had been before,
He called for a pint of the very best beer.
“It’s welcome home, young Johnny, you’re welcome from the sea,
Last night my daughter Molly was dreaming of thee.”

“Where is your daughter Molly, oh, come sit her on my knee.“
“Oh, my daughter she is busy, John, she cannot come to thee,
My daughter she is busy, John, she cannot come to you,
And besides I wouldn’t trust you for one pot or two.”

So Johnny feeling weary, he hung down his head.
He called for a candle to light him up to bed.
“But my beds they are all full, John, and they have been full for weeks,
So be off with you, young Johnny, fresh lodgings you must seek.”

“How much do I owe you?” these words he then did say,
How much do I owe you, for it’s some to you I’ll pay.”
“It’s five and forty shillings, John, you’ve owed me of old.”
And out from his pocket he drew handfuls of gold.

And when she saw the money all a-shining in his hand,
She called for daughter Molly and right quickly she come in.
She’s hugging him and kissing him and calling him her dear,
Saying, “The green bed it is empty, young Johnny shall lie there.”

“Before I would lie there, I would lie all in the street,
Before I would lie there, I would die all at your feet,
For if I had no money, from the door I would have turned,
So you and your old mother can go and be hanged.”

So come all you jolly sailor men who plough the raging main,
Who work for your money in the wind and in the rain;
Be sure you check your money, lads, before you go on shore,
Or else your old companions will turn you from the door.

Martin Carthy sings The Green Bed

A story, a story, a story was one,
Concerning of a sailor whose name it was John.
He had been a long voyage and had lately come on shore,
For his money was good, but his rigging was tore.

Johnny went to the ale-house where he’d been before,
And he called for a glass of the very best beer.
“You’re welcome in, young Johnny, you are welcome in,” says she,
“For last night my daughter Molly was a-dreaming of thee.”

“What news, my young Johnny, what news from the sea?”
“Bad news,” says young Johnny, “for all is gone from me.
Our ship sprung a leak, ma’am, the voyage being crossed,
And on the wide ocean, crew and cargo was lost.”

“Call down your daughter Molly and sit her on my knee.
We will drown all our sorrows and merry we will be.”
“My daughter Molly’s busy, John, and cannot come to you,
And neither would I trust you for one pot nor two.”

Johnny being tired, he hung down his head.
He called for a candle to light his way to bed.
“Out beds are all engaged, John, and will be all this week,
So now for fresh lodgings you must go and seek.”

“Oh, what is your reckoning?” the sailor he said.
“Oh, what is your reckoning? for you must be paid.”
“There’s forty-four shillings, John, you owe me of old.”
Then out of his pocket he drew handfuls of gold.

At the sight of this money, the landlady did rue.
“I will have you remember all I’ve done for you,
For what I’ve just said, John, was all said in jest.
Of all of my boarders I like you the best.”

And at the jingle of his money, young Molly flew downstairs.
She huddled him, she cuddled him, she called him her dear.
“Oh, the green bed is empty and has been all this week,
Where you and young Molly, you can take your sweet sleep.”

“Before that I would lie in your green bed, I know,
I would rather lie out in the rain, the wind and snow,
For if I’d no money, out of doors I would be turned,
And it’s you and your green bed deserve to be burned.”

Come all you young sailors that sails all on the main,
That do get your living in the cold storm, wind and rain;
Now, when you have got it, pray you lay it up in store,
For the fear that your companions should turn you out of doors.


The words are from The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, eds Ralph Vaughan Williams & A.L. Lloyd, Penguin, 1959. Martin Carthy’s variations transcribed by Reinhard Zierke. Thanks to Garry Gillard.