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Lovely on the Water

[ Roud 1539 ; Ballad Index VWP066 ; VWML RVW2/1/75 , GG/1/20/1315 ; trad.]

This song was collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams from the singing of Mr Hilton at South Walsham on April 11, 1908 [VWML RVW2/1/75] and published in the Journal of the Folk Song Society vol. 4 (1910) p. 84.

Steeleye Span recorded Lovely on the Water in 1971 for their second album, Please to See the King, and Frankie Armstrong likewise as title track of her 1972 LP, Lovely on the Water; this track was later included in the Topic compilation of traditional songs of sailors, ships and the sea, Round Cape Horn. The sleeve notes commented:

Certain folk songs had great popularity, and have been reported over and again, from end to end of the country. Others—including some masterpieces—seem to have had but tiny circulation. So Lovely on the Water, with a gorgeous melody and significant words, has been found only once, by Vaughan Williams at South Walsham, a few miles from Norwich. The song starts idyllically and ends ominously, like a sunny day that clouds over. The singer, a Mr Hilton, had fourteen verses, but Vaughan Williams, often a bit careless about texts, mislaid some. Missing verses probably concerned the familiar situation in which the girl volunteers to disguise herself as a seaman, in order to sail with her lover, but is hurriedly dissuaded.

Cris Larner and Danny Spooner sang Lovely on the Water on the 1978 album Danny Spooner and Friends. Danny Spooner noted:

British folk repertoire abounds with song of young lovers being separated by wars probably because until quite recently the English were always having a punch-up with somebody or other. A.L. Lloyd says of this song that it is not as well known as it deserves to be, and I agree. Its words and plaintive tune really conjure up vivid pictures in one's mind of what must always be a very sad event.

Vaughan Williams once did a choral setting of part of this song.

Tony Rose recorded Lovely on the Water in 1999 for his CD Bare Bones.

Coope Boyes & Simpson sang Lovely on the Water on their 2005 album of songs collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth and Percy Grainger, Triple Echo.

Jon Boden sang Lovely on the Water as the March 21, 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day.

Tim Radford sang Lovely on the Water on his 2012 Forest Tracks CD of maritime songs collected in Hampshire by George Gardiner, From Spithead Roads. He noted:

Collected from Mr. Fred Osman of Bartley in the New Forest on November 3, 1908, local manuscript no. H1315 and Roud no. 1539 [VWML GG/1/20/1315] . […] This is the only version Gardiner collected, however Vaughan Williams collected a version in Norfolk in 1908, and it was also collected in Georgia, USA around 1932!

I have added an extra verse to that collected from Osman. My fifth verse comes from a Harkness Broadside called Henry and Nancy or The Lover’s Separation. I think this makes the song and story more complete.

Martha Tilston and the sadly missed Maggie Boyle sang Lovely on the Water in 2014 on Martha's CD The Sea.

Lyrics

Steeleye Span sing Lovely on the Water Frankie Armstrong sings Lovely on the Water

As I walked out one morning
In the spring time of the year,
I overheard a sailor boy
Likewise a lady fair.

As I walked out one morning
In the spring time of the year,
I overheard a sailor
Likewise his lady fair.

They sang a song together,
Made the valleys for to ring;
While the birds on the spray in the meadows gay
Proclaimed the lovely spring.

They sang a song together,
Made the valleys for to ring;
And the birds on the spray in the meadows gay
Proclaimed the lovely spring.

Said Willy unto Nancy,
“Oh we soon must sail away,
For it's lovely on the water
To hear the music play.

Said the sailor to his sweetheart,
“We soon must sail away.
And it's lovely on the waters
To hear the music play;
But if I had my way, dear love,
Along with you I'd stay.

For our Queen she do want seamen,
So I will not stay on shore.
I will brave the wars for my country
Where the blund'ring cannons roar.”

But our Queen she do want seamen,
And we must leave the shore.
And we must face the wars, my love,
Where cannons loud do roar.”

Poor Nancy fell and fainted
But soon he brought her to,
For it's there they kissed and they embraced
And took a fond adieu.

“Come change your ring with me, my love,
For we may meet once more;
But there's One above that will guard you, love,
Where the blund'ring cannons roar.

Four pounds, it is our bounty,
And that must do for thee.
For to help the aged parents
While I am on the sea.”

For Tower Hill is crowded
With mothers weeping sore,
For their sons are gone to face the foe
Where the blundering cannons roar.

Oh Tower Hill is crowded
With women weeping sore,
For their husbands, sons and sweethearts
Gone to face the cannons roar.

Tony Rose sings Lovely on the Water

As I walked out one morning
In the spring time of the year,
I overheard a sailor
Likewise his lady fair.

Oh, they sang a song together,
Made the valleys for to ring;
And the birds on the high in the meadows gay
They proclaimed a lovely spring.

Said the sailor to his true love,
“We soon must sail away.
And it's lovely on the water
To hear the music play.”

And said Billy unto Nancy,
“I soon must sail away.
But if I had my way, my love,
It's along with you I'd stay.

But our Queen she do want sailors,
And we must leave the shore.
And we must face the wars, my love,
Where the cannons loud do roar.”

And Tower Hill is crowded
With the women weeping sore,
For husbands, sons and sweethearts
Gone to face the cannons roar.

“So come change your ring with me, love,
For we may meet once more;
There's One above will guard my love
Where the cannons loud do roar.

Tim Radford sings Lovely on the Water

As I walked out one morning in the spring time of the year,
I overheard a sailor bold likewise a lady fair,
They sang a song together which made the valleys ring,
While birds on sprays and meadows gay proclaimed the lovely Spring.

Then Henry said to Nancy, “I soon must sail away
For it’s lovely on the waters to hear the music play.
Our King he does want seamen so I’ll not stay on shore,
I’ll brave the wars for my country’s cause, where the cannons do loudly roar.”

Oh then said pretty Nancy, “Pray stay at home with me,
Or let me go along with you to bear you company.
I’ll put on a pair of trousers, I’ll leave my native shore,
So let me go along with you where the cannons do loudly roar.”

“That will not do,” said Henry, “It’s vain for you to try,
They will not ship a female,” young Henry did reply,
“Besides your hands are delicate, the ropes will make them sore,
And it would be worse if you should fall where the cannons so loudly roar.

“O four it is the bounty, and that will do for thee,
To help thy aged parents while I am far at sea,
Come change your ring with me my love, for we may meet once more,
For one above may guide your love where the cannons do loudly roar.”

Poor Nancy fell and fainted, but soon they brought her to,
They both shook hands and parted and took a fond adieu,
They both shook hands and parted that they may meet once more,
For there’s one above will guard your love where the cannons do loudly roar.

There’s many the mother’s darling has entered on the main,
And in this dreadful battle great numbers will be slain,
There’s many the weeping mother and widows will deplore,
For sons that’s gone to fight the foe where the cannons do loudly roar.