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Sir Patrick Spens

[ Roud 41 ; Child 58 ; G/D 1:17 ; Ballad Index C058 ; trad.]

Ewan MacColl sang Sir Patrick Spens in 1956 on his and A.L. Lloyd's Riverside anthology The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (The Child Ballads) Volume II.

Fairport Convention rehearsed Sir Patrick Spens in 1969 during their Liege and Lief recording sessions with Sandy Denny singing. This track was left out of the final LP, however, but it was included in 1995 on Ashley Hutchings' anthology The Guv'nor Vol 2 with an early fade out, and as bonus track on the 2002 CD reissue of Liege and Lief.

A BBC radio version from the “Top Gear” session recorded on September 23, 1969 can be found on Fairport Convention's semi-bootleg From Past Archives with Sandy taking lead vocals and having some trouble on the low notes. IMHO, this version is better than the later studio one. This track was re-released on the Fairport unConventioNal 4CD set (even though this record's sleeve notes incorrectly claim this to be the Liege and Lief sessions out-take), and on the 5CD Fledg'ling Sandy Denny anthology A Boxful of Treasures.

In 1971, Fairport “officially” recorded and released Sir Patrick Spens for their album Full House with Dave Swarbrick taking lead vocals. A Fairport live version from the 1970 Los Angeles gigs appears on the album Live at the L.A. Troubadour and on the compilation Fiddlestix: The Best of Fairport 1972-1984. A further version—most likely from a BBC Radio “Sounds on Sunday” session at the Royal Albert Hall early in 1971—is on the compilation The Harvest of Gold.

Nic Jones sang Sir Patrick Spens in 1970 on his first solo album, Ballads and Songs. He commented in his album sleeve notes:

Three very common ballads are included in this record: Sir Patrick Spens, The Outlandish Knight and Little Musgrave. All three are well-known to anyone with a knowledge of balladry, as they are well represented in most ballad collections.

The tune of Sir Patrick Spens is basically that which appears in Christie's Traditional Ballad Airs, a collection well worth working through for anyone after some good tunes.

Peter Bellamy sang Sir Patrick Spens in 1982 on his privately issued cassette The Maritime England Suite, which was intended for a proposed BBC radio broadcast, We Have Fed Our Sea.

Martin Carthy sang Sir Patrick Spens on his 1998 album Signs of Life, accompanied by himself on guitar and by Eliza Carthy on fiddle. This track was also included in 2001 on The Carthy Chronicles. He also sang it live in studio in July 2006 for the DVD Guitar Maestros. Martin Carthy commented in his original recording's sleeve notes:

It was when I was about seven or eight that my mother first showed me Sir Patrick Spens, and it was many years before I understood that these things are supposed to be sung. The first tune I heard was from Ewan MacColl and subsequently others from Fairport and the great and marvellously inventive Nic Jones, who dug out what I think is the best tune to carry that song, and which I sing here. Nic recorded it on his first album which lies, along with 80% of his recorded output and a very large chunk of the work of other '70s musicians in a record company's maw. Or should that be mausoleum? Either way, it's sad that such spring heeled guitar playing and singing should lie unheard.

This video shows Martin Carthy playing Sir Patrick Spens at No Direction Home Festival on June 10, 2012:

Jack Beck sang Sir Patrick Spens in 2001 on his Tradition Bearers CD Half Ower, Half Ower tae Aberdour. He commented in his liner notes:

This is the famous ‘Dunfermline Ballad’—not historically accurate, but a great story for all that. It can be found in all the major collections, and is more often heard recited than sung. The tune is from the singing of my friend Duncan Williamson; the words are collated from Duncan's and the more common printed texts.

June Tabor recorded Sir Patrick Spens in 2003 for her album An Echo of Hooves. This track was also included in her anthology Always. She commented in her original recording's sleeve notes:

First appearing in Percy's Reliques, 1765, Child “does not feel compelled to regard this ballad as historical” but Margaret, daughter of Alexander the Third of Scotland was married in 1281 to Eric, King of Norway. She was taken by ship to Norway in the August of that year with a large escort of Noblemen, many of whom were drowned on the voyage home.

Martin Simpson sang Sir Patrick Spens in 2009 on his Topic CD True Stories.

Jon Boden sang Sir Patrick Spens as the February 25, 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. He commented in his blog:

One of the finest ballad melodies going, as discovered by Nic Jones. I heard this first from a brilliant version on Martin Carthy’s Signs of Life album, and have had the great privilege of playing on Martin Simpson’s equally brilliant version. No surprise then that I didn’t opt for a guitar accompaniment on this one…

Lyrics

Fairport Convention's Sir Patrick Spens
from the Liege and Lief
recording sessions
Fairport Convention's 1969 BBC “Top Gear” session

The King sat in Dunfermline town
Drinking of the blood red wine.
“Where can I get a good sea captain
To sail this mighty ship of mine?”

The King sat in Dunfermline town
Drinking of the blood red wine.
“Where can I get a good sea captain
To sail this mighty ship of mine?”

Then up there spoke a bonny boy
Sitting at the King's right knee,
“Sir Patrick Spens is the very best seaman
That ever sailed upon the sea.”

Then up there spoke a bonny boy
Sitting at the King's right knee,
“Sir Patrick Spens is the very best seaman
That ever sailed upon the sea.”

The King has written a broad letter
And sealed it up with his own right hand,
Sending word unto Sir Patrick
To come to him at his command.

The King has written a broad letter
And sealed it up with his own right hand,
Sending word unto Sir Patrick
To come to him at his command.

“An enemy then this must be
Who told a lie concerning me,
For I was never a very good seaman
Nor ever do intend to be.”

“An enemy then this must be
Who told a lie concerning me,
For I was never a very good seaman
Nor ever do intend to be.”

“Last night I saw the new moon
With the old moon in her arm,
A sign, a sign, since we were born
That means there'll be a deadly storm.”

“Last night I saw the new, new moon
With the old moon in her arm,
And that is the sign since we were born
That means there'll be a deadly storm.”

They had not sailed upon the sea
A day, a day, but barely three,
When loud and boisterous grew the wind
And loud and stormy grew the sea.

They had not sailed upon the sea
A day, a day, but barely three,
When loud and boisterous grew the wind
And loud and stormy grew the sea.

Then up there came a mermaiden,
A comb and glass all in her hand,
“Here's a health to you, my merry young men,
For you'll not see dry land again!”

Then up there came a mermaiden,
A comb and glass all in her hand,
“A health to you, my merry young men,
For you'll not see dry land again!”

“Oh, long may my lady look
With a lantern in her hand
Before she sees my bonny ship
Come sailing homewards to dry land.”

“Oh, long may my lady look
With a lantern in her hand
Before she sees my bonny ship
Come sailing homewards to dry land.”

Forty miles off Aberdeen
The water's fifty fathoms deep.
There lies good Sir Patrick Spens
With the Scots lords at his feet.

Forty miles off Aberdeen
The water's fifty fathoms deep.
There lies good Sir Patrick Spens
With the Scots lords at his feet.

Martin Carthy sings Sir Patrick Spens Digital Tradition version from the Mudcat Café

Oh the king sits in Dunfermline town
A-drinking the blood-red wine,
Says, “Where will I get me a brave young skipper
Sail this ship of mine?”

The King sits in Dunferlane toon
A-drinkin' at the wine,
And he has called for the best skipper
In Fife and all the land.

And up and spoke an old, old man,
Who sat at the king's right knee.
He says, “Patrick Spens is the very best sailor
Who ever did sail on the sea.”

Then out there spoke an old carle,
Sat by the King's own knee,
Says, “Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor
That ever sailed the sea”

So the king he has written him a long, long letter
Sealed it with his hand,
And he sent it along to Patrick Spens
Who was walking down on the sand.

The King has written a long letter
And signed it with his own hand,
And sent it to young Patrick Spens
Was walking on Leith strand.

“To Norowa, to Norowa,
To Norowa over the foam.
The King's daughter of Norowa,
Tis you must bring her home.”

And the very first line that Patrick read
So loud, so loud laughed he,
And the very next line that Patrick read
Down he fell to his knee.

The first line that Sir Patrick read
A loud, loud laugh laughed he,
The next line that Sir Patrick read
A tear blinded his e'e.

“Oh, who is this, who has done this deed
Telling the king on me,
For to send us out this time of the year
To sail on the salt, salt sea?”

“Oh who is this has done this deed
And told the King of me,
To send me out this time of year,
To sail upon the sea?”

“To Norway, to far Norway,
To Norway over the foam.
It is the king's daughter of far Norway
And we must bring her home.”

Now they set sail with all good speed
On a Monday in the morn,
And they have arrived far over the sea
On a Wednesday in the eve.

And they'd not been in far Norway
A week but barely three,
When all those lords of far Norway
Began out aloud for to say:

They hadn't been in Norowa
A week but barely three,
When all the lords of Norowa
Got up and spak' so free:

“Oh, you Scots foreigners spend our king's gold,
Swallow up our money.”
“Oh, weary weary the tongue that lies,
See how it lies on thee.”

“The outland Scots waste our King's gold
And swallow our Queen's fee”
“Oh weary for the tongue that speaks
Such a mortal lie”

“Make ready, ready my good men all,
The little ship sails in the morn.
Be it wind, be it wet, be it hail, be it sleet,
Be it fair or deadly storm.”

“Take tent, take tent, my good men all
Make sure you are well forn
For come it wind or come it rain
Our good ship sails the morn”

But up and spoke our own weatherman,
“I fear we'll all be drowned.
For I saw the new moon late last night,
The old moon in her arm.”

Then out there spoke the weatherman
“I fear we'll all be drownded
For I saw the new moon late yestere'en
With the old moon in her arms”

And they'd not sailed a league and a league,
A league but barely three
When through and through the little ship's side
[They?] spied the green-walled sea.

They had not sailed a league, a league,
A league but barely three
When the lift grew dark and the wind blew loud
And surly grew the sea.

“Oh, where will I get me a brave young boy,
Take my helm in hand,
While I climb up to the tall topmast,
See can I spy land.”

And he'd not gone a step and a step,
A step but barely one,
When the whirling winds and the ugly jaws
Came a-driving to their shin.

“Oh, fetch me a web of the silken cloth,
Another web of the twine,
And lay them around our little ship's side
Let not the sea come in.”

And they got a web of the silken cloth,
Another web of the twine,
And they laid them around the little ship's side,
Still the sea come in.

Oh, the anchor snapped, the topmast cracked,
It was a deadly storm.
And the whirling winds and the ugly jaws
Came a-driving to their chin.

And there came a gale from the north-north-east,
So loud, so loud it weep,
It cried, “Patrick Spens and all of his men
Are drowning in the deep.”

And loath, loath were the good Scots lords
To wet their shining shoen,
But long and ere this day was done
Their hats were soaking through.

Oh loath, loath were the good Scots lords
To wear their cork-heeled shoen
But long e'er all the ploy was played
They wore their hats aboon

And many were the fine feather bed
Flattering over the foam,
And many were the good lords' sons
Never, never more come home.

And long, long will the ladies sit,
Their gold combs in their hand,
Before they see Sir Patrick Spens
Come a-sailing to dry land.

Oh, it's east by north from Aberdour,
It's fifty fathom deep.
And it's there it lies Patrick Spens,
The Scots lords at his feet.

Half over, half over by Aberdeen
Where the sea's so wide and deep,
It's there that lies young Patrick Spens
With the Scots lord at his feet.

Peter Bellamy sings Sir Patrick Spens

The King sits in Dunfermline town,
A-drinking at the wine,
And he has called for the finest skipper
In Fife or all the land.

Then up and spoke an old man
Who sat by the King's right knee;
He says: “Patrick Spens is the finest sailor
That ever sailed on the sea.”

So the King he wrote a broad letter,
He signed it with his hand.
He sent it to young Sir Patrick Spens
Who was walking on Leith strand.

“To Norrowa, to Norrowa,
To Norrowa o'er the foam,
The King's daughter in Norrowa
'Tis you must bring her home.”

Now, they had not been in Norrowa
A week but barely three,
When all the lords in Norrowa
They up and they spoke so free.

They say: “These outland Scots they drink our King's gold,
They swallow our Queen's fee.”
Oh woe upon the tongue that told
Such a dreadful lie!

“And how can this be?” cries Sir Patrick Spens,
“So I pray now, tell it unto me!
When the bows of our ship they are wrought in gold
And we've twelve chests of white money.”

“But take heed, take heed, my good men all
And mind you be forewarned:
For cometh wind or cometh hail,
Our good ship sails in the morn.”

But up then spoke the weatherman,
It's, “I fear we all be drowned!
For I saw the new moon late yest'reen
With the old moon laying in her arms.”

Now they had not sailed a league, a league,
A league but barely three,
When the skies they run black and the seas run high
And that ship she was nigh a wreck.

Then it's, “Where can I find me some bonny boy
To take the steer in hand,
While I climb up to the high topmast
To see if I can spy the land.”

But he had not taken a step, a step,
A step but barely one,
When the bows of that good ship did crack
And the salt seas they rushed in.

Then loth, oh loath were those proud Scots lords
For to wet their cork-heeled shoes,
But ere the race it was halfway run
They'd wet their hats also.

Now long and long may the ladies sit
With their fans all in their hands
Before they see Sir Patrick Spens
Come sailing to Leith strand.

It's alf ower, half ower to Aberdour
Where the seas they run so deep,
It's there does lie young Sir Patrick Spens
With the Scots lords at his feet.

Notes

“Feather beds”: a note from Roy Palmer, Everyman's Book of British Ballads: “The image of so domestic an object as a feather bed floating in the sea conveys a powerful feeling of desolation. However, the truth is more prosaic; from earliest times sailors used feather beds, partly because they were comfortable, but also because the feathers' extreme buoyancy made them excellent life rafts.”

The plural “shoen”: Bill Bryson notes in Mother Tongue (1990), p. 55: “In Old English there were at least six endings that denoted plurals, but by Shakespeare's time these had by and large shrunk to two: -s and -en. But even then the process was nowhere complete. In the Elizabethean Age, people sometimes said shoes and sometimes shoen, sometimes houses and sometimes housen.”

A note from The Penguin Book of Folk Ballads of the English Speaking World: “… The chronicles fail to mention Sir Patrick Spens, though his mission seems to have been the high matter of transporting a Scottish princess to Norway or a Norwegian princess to Scotland. A daughter of Alexander III was married to Eric, King of Norway, in 1281. The courtiers who accompanied the new queen to Norway in August of that year were drowned on the return voyage. … [the ballad also] might refer to Margaret of Norway, shipwrecked off the Scottish coast in 1290…”

The Contemplator's page for this song gives more details, as well as another set of words.

Acknowledgements

Transcribed by Garry Gillard; many thanks to Wolfgang Hell. Peter Bellamy's version is based on Roberto's transcription in the Mudcat Café thread Lyr Req: Peter Bellamy's Sir Patrick Spens.