> Shirley Collins > Songs > Black-Eyed Susan

Black-Eyed Susan

[ Roud 560 ; Laws O28 ; Ballad Index LO28 ; John Gay]

Shirley Collins sang Black-Eyed Susan on her 1967 album The Power of the True Love Knot. She commented in her sleeve notes:

Tableau: a handsome sailor on board a ship of the line taking leave of his true love. They make vows, exchange tokens, dry tears: the fleet is setting sail. It's a familiar scene on dinner plates, prints and samplers. Out of such an emotionally charged situation just had to come some great songs. This rather formal sailor's farewell has a few literary touches to give away its composed origin (John “Beggar's Opera” Gay) but they don't worry me. Dolly's stately dancing decorations are true in feel to the song's date of composition - the mid-eighteenth century.

A 1966 demo recording of Black-Eyed Susan was published in 2006 on the CD Snapshots.

Walter Pardon of Knapton, Norfolk, sang Black-Eyed Susan to Mike Yates in 1980. This recording was included on the Veteran Tapes cassette of English traditional singers, The Horkey Load Vol 2, on the 2006 Veteran anthology of English traditional folk singers, It Was on a Market Day—Two, and on his Musical Traditions anthology of 2000, Put a Bit of Powder on It, Father. Rod Stradling and Mike Yates noted in the accompanying booklet:

When John Gay wrote Sweet William's Farewell to Black-Eyed Susan (published in 1720), he can little have imagined that it would form part of the oral tradition of a family of Norfolk farm workers two and a half centuries later, let alone that the singing of one of them should be published on CD in the 21st century! But the truth is often stranger than our wildest imaginings. By 1730, Richard Leveridge has set the poem to music and the resultant song became extremely popular for 100 years or more—so much so that a number of sequels sprang up to trade on the original's popularity. Sweet William's Return to his Dear Susan was followed by Sweet Susan's Constancy and The True Answer to Black-Ey'd Susan … there may have been others (vague rumours of Son of Black-Eyed Susan and Black-Eyed Susan Goes Line-Dancing have been heard …) Even a stage play resulted, Black-Eyed Susan or All in the Downs (1829), involving the imagined melodramatic consequences of Sweet William's return.

The song did not survive well into modern times—Roud lists 141 sightings, but almost all are from old broadsides and books. Only seven are collections from the tradition and none are very recent, although Bob Hart of Snape, Suffolk, had it in his repertoire in the 1970s. Walter's is the only known sound recording—reading through these notes you will find that this is very often the case. He sings the song beautifully, clearly relishing its gorgeous soaring tune, and utterly involved in the emotional impact of the final verses.

Ian King sang Black-Eyed Susan in 2010 on his Fledg'ling album Panic Grass & Fever Few.

Lyrics

Walter Pardon sings Black-Eyed Susan Shirley Collins sings Black-Eyed Susan

All in the Downs the fleet lay moored,
The streamers waving in the wind,
When black-eyed Susan came on board;
“Oh, where shall I my true-love find?
Tell me you jovial sailors, tell me true
𝄆 If my sweet William 𝄇 sails among your crew.”

All in the Downs the fleet was moored,
The streamers waving in the wind,
When black-eyed Susan came on board,
“Oh, where shall I my true-love find?
Tell me tar-full sailors, tell me true,
𝄆 Does my sweet William 𝄇 sail on board with you?”

William, who high upon the yard,
Rocked with the billows to and fro,
'Twas then her well-known voice he heard,
Then he sighed and cast his eyes below.
The cord slides swiftly through his glowing hands,
𝄆 And swift as lightning 𝄇 on the deck he stands.

William who high upon the yard
Rocked with the billows to and fro,
Soon as her well-known voice he heard,
He sighed and cast his eyes below.
The cord slides swiftly through his glowing hands
𝄆 And quick as lightning 𝄇 on the deck he stands.

How swift the lark, high poised in air,
Shuts close his pinions to his breast.
By chance his mate's shrill call he hear,
Then he drops at once into her nest.
The noblest captain in the British fleet
𝄆 Might envy William's 𝄇 lips those kisses sweet.

“Oh Susan, Susan, lovely dear,
My vows forever true remain.
Let me kiss off this falling tear,
We only part to meet again.
Love turns aside the cannon balls that fly,
𝄆 Lest precious tears 𝄇 should fall from Susan's eye.”

“Oh Susan, Susan, lovely dear,
My heart shall ever true remain.
Let me kiss off that falling tear,
We only part to meet again.
Change as you list she wins, my heart shall be
𝄆 A faithful compass 𝄇 that still points to thee.”

“Heed not the landsmen when they try
To tempt away thy constant mind.
They tell thee, sailors, when away,
In every port a mistress find.
Yes, yes, believe them when they tell thee so,
𝄆 For thou art present 𝄇 whereso'er I go.”

“If to fair India's coast we sail,
Thy eyes are like the diamonds bright.
Thy breath is Afric's spicy gale,
Thy skin is ivory so white.
Thus every beauteous objects that I view,
𝄆 Wakes in my soul 𝄇 some charm of lovely Sue.”

“Though battle calls me from thy arms,
Let not my pretty Susan mourn.
Though cannons roar, yet safe from harm,
I to my love will safe return.
Love turns aside the cannon balls that fly,
𝄆 Lest precious tears 𝄇 should fall from Susan's eye.”

The boatswain gave the dreadful word,
The sails their swelling bosom spread.
No longer must she stay on board,
They kissed, she sighed, he hung his head.
Her less'ning boat unwilling rows to land:
𝄆 “Adieu”, she cries 𝄇 and waves her lily hand.

The bosun gave the dreaded word,
Her sails their swelling bosoms spread.
No longer must she stay on board,
They kissed, she sighed and hung her head,
Her boat unwilling rows its way to land,
𝄆 “Adieu,” she cries, 𝄇 and waves her lily hand.