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The Drowned Sailor / The Drowned Lover / Stow Brow

[ Roud 185 ; Master title: The Drowned Sailor ; Laws K18 ; G/D 1:20 ; TYG 7 ; Ballad Index LK18 ; MusTrad DB03 ; Bodleian Roud 185 ; Mudcat 167725 ; trad.]

Sam Larner sang In Scarboro’ Town, at home in Winterton, Norfolk in 1958/59 in a BBC recording made by Philip Donnellan. This was published in 1974 on his Topic album A Garland for Sam and in 1998 on the Topic anthology My Ship Shall Sail the Ocean (The Voice of the People Volume Series Volume 2). He also sang this song as The Drowned Lover, in a recording made by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger in 1958-60, on his 1961 Folkways album Now Is the Time for Fishing.

Harry Cox sang In Scarborough Fair Town in a recording made between 1945 and 1971 on his Topic anthology of 2000, The Bonny Labouring Boy.

Lal Waterson relocated the story to Stow Brow when she sang this song in 1966 on the Watersons’ LP A Yorkshire Garland. Like most of the tracks from this LP, it was re-released in 1994 on the CD Early Days. It was also included in 2004 on the Watersons’ 4CD anthology Mighty River of Song. A.L. Lloyd commented in the original album’s sleeve notes:

In 1671 a lament for a drowned lover, Captain Digby, was published as a broadside and it spread about England and also washed over to America (the renowned Mrs. Texas Gladden popularised a version of it, beginning “As I was a-walking down by the sea-shore, the wind it did whistle and the waters did roar”). During the nineteenth century, the stage comedian Sam Cowell made a burlesque of it, and it eventually became a kind of model—serious once again—for a number of “drowned lover” ballads. The one sung here is more often known as Scarborough Sands, and it has been found in places as widely apart as Southampton and Aberdeen, where Robin Hood’s Bay becomes Reuben Bay in the song, though sets of the song in distant North Carolina preserved the Yorkshire locale undistorted. The ballad is just about a hundred years old. Frank Kidson had a version from Flamborough, that he called The Drowned Sailor. Stow Brow is just to the south of Robin Hood’s Bay.

Dave Burland sang The Drowned Sailor in 1972 on his eponymous Trailer album Dave Burland. The album’s liner notes commented:

A Yorkshire song collected by Kidson near Whitby. The story is supposedly located in Robin Hood’s Bay. Possibly a true occurrence.

Frank Verill sang this song as Stowborough Town at home in Staithes, Yorkshire in 1988. This recording by Maggie Sands was included in 1998 on the Topic anthology We’ve Received Orders to Sail (The Voice of the People Volume Series Volume 12).

Harold Smy sang Scarborough in a recording made by John Howson in Ipswich, Suffolk, in 1985. It was originally released on the Veteran tape Sungs Sung in Suffolk Vol 5. This recording was also included in 2001 on the Veteran anthology CD of traditional folk music from coastal England, When the Wind Blows. John Howson commented in the liner notes:

This song is often called the The Drowned Lover or The Drowned Sailor. It has been recorded all over Britain and America but it is generally agreed to be of Yorkshire origin. It is said to tell of an actual event affecting a young girl who lived in Stow Brow near Whitby. However, when Harold sang it to me, he started with the statement: “Now here’s a local song!”—and he may actually be right, as the song has antecedents in a ballad of 1673 which deals with a woman’s grief at finding the drowned body of the Earl of Sandwich after the Battle of Sole Bay, off the coast of Southwold in Suffolk.

The above mentioned The Drowned Sailor from Frank Kidson’s Traditional Tunes (Oxford, 1891) is very similar to the Watersons’ Stow Brow. Rachael McShane sang a somewhat different The Drowned Sailor in 2009 on her CD No Man’s Fool.

Peta Webb sang Scarborough Fair Town in 2000 on her and Ken Hall’s their Fellside album As Close As Can Be. She noted:

Scarborough Fair Town is from the great Norfolk singer Sam Larner, remembered for his wicked chuckle and great enjoyment of life captured on MacColl and Seeger’s classic 1961 Folkways recording Now Is the Time for Fishing. This song presents the tragic side of the fishing industry, the storms and shipwrecks—“they’re all gone, all gone…”.

Jackie Oates sang Scarborough’s Fair Town in 2011 on her CD Saturnine.

Andy Turner got In Scarborough Fair Town from Sam Larner and sang it as the 5 August 2012 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week.

Shirley Collins sang Washed Ashore on her 2016 album Lodestar. She commented in her album notes:

This song is from a large beautifully-bound book of folk songs collected by Cecil Sharp [maybe English County Folk Songs (1908-12 / 1961)?] that my sister Dolly found at a car-boot fair. It was the last arrangement that she wrote, and sadly we never recorded it, but Ian [Kearey]’s playing follows its spirit perfectly. In the Downland church of Friston in East Sussex you’ll find set close by the red-brick path, a simple wooden cross with the words ‘Washed Ashore’. This song is for that unknown seaman and the compassionate villagers who gave him a resting place.

Peter Bellamy sang The Drowned Sailor on a tape in Paul Adams’ collection, who added this in 2018 as a bonus track to the Fellside CD reissue of The Maritime Suite. Paul Adams noted:

This song is related to a body of songs including Stow Brow, Scarborough Fair Town, Scarborough Sands, The Drowned Lover and even, Washed Ashore. Peter’s version emanates from the inimitable Sam Larner. It is rooted in the fishing industry rather than being a naval song.

Bryony Griffith and Alice Jones sang Strawberry Tower in 2022 on their album of Yorkshire songs, A Year Too Late and a Month Too Soon. They noted:

This is a version of Stow Brow, first learnt from the wonderful singer and farmer John Greaves, whose rendition can be heard on The Yorkshire Garland website. John lives across the valley from ‘Stoupe Brow’ which is a headland overlooking Robin Hood’s Bay on the North York Moors and he remembers a lady from there singing it. The tune we have used here is from a version in the appendix of the Hudleston collection, which has been to Canada and come back with the new title of Strawberry Tower (presumably a mishearing of Stow Brow). It was collected by Canadian ethnomusicologist, Kenneth Peacock from Mrs Charlotte Decker of Parson’s Pond, Newfoundland in 1958 and appears in his book The Songs of the Newfoundland Outports. A set of lyrics also appears in a treasure book of songs noted down by the 17-year-old Margaret Moorsom of Robin Hood’s Bay in 1877 and published by Jim Foster in 2021.


Sam Larner sings The Drowned Lover

’Twas in Scarborough fair town a young damsel did dwell,
She loved a young sailor, she loved him full well.
When they were about to marry her this was this young man’s lot:
Instead of a married life a watery grave he got.

Now as we were got sailing through Robin Hood’s Bay,
The wind came down all on us and dismal was the day.
The wind came down all on us and the seas like lions roared,
Which tossed these poor sailors all on the lee shore.

Now as we were got swimming, yes, swimming for our lives,
Some of them had sweethearts and some of them had wives.
And it was about our landing, it worked to be this young man’s lot,
For instead of a-marrying her a watery grave he got.

Now as soon as this fair maid these tidings did hear
She pulled off her ringlets, she tored off her hair,
Crying, “Come, all you cruel billows, come, toss my love on shore
So that I may behold his sweet features once more.”

Now as she was got walking down by the sea side
She met a pretty sailor washed up all by the tide,
And when she saw him she immediately did stand,
For she knew it was her own true love by the marks on his right hand.

“And now that I have found my true love I do adore,
I’ll kiss him, I’ll embrace him ten thousand times o’er,
I’d be happy and contented to lay down by his side.”
And the very next day morning this pretty fair maid died.

Now in Scarborough fair town these two couple do lay,
And written on their tombstone in full memory,
Crying, “Come, all you loyal lovers, this way as you pass by,
Think of those unfortunate couple who now here do lay.”

Lal Waterson sings Stow Brow

In Stow Brow, in Stow Brow a fair maid did dwell,
She loved an handsome sailor lad and he loved her as well.
He promised for to marry her when back he did return
But bad luck and cruel hardship upon this couple fell.

As they were a-sailing, a storm did arise;
The sun was overshaded and dismal was the sight.
The wind it blew an hurricane which made the billows roar
And it tossed these poor sailors all on the rocky shore.

Now some of them was single men and some of them had wives
And all of these poor sailors was a-struggling for their lives;
But this unfortunate young man who happened to be there,
And instead of getting married he got a watery grave.

Now from Stow Brow, from Stow Brow to Robin Hood’s Bay
She spied the stranded sailor all on the sands he lay.
She boldly plucked up to him and amazed she did stand
For she saw it was her own true love by the marks on his right hand.

She kissed him, caressed him ten thousand times o’er,
Crying, “All these cruel billows have tossed my love on shore!”
How happy and contented she lay down by his side,
And a few more minutes afterwards, this fair young maiden died.

Now in Robin Hood’s Bay churchyard this couple they do lay
And for a memorandum a stone is put there.
And all of you young couples that do pass by there
I’d have you all to shed a tear for the couple that lie there.

Rachael McShane sings The Drowned Sailor

In London’s fair city a damsel did dwell,
She was courted by a sailor and he loved her well.
And he promised for to marry her if he ever did return,
But mark what hard fortune all on him did stand.

As he was a-sailing the ocean so brave
His ship it was wrecked by the wind and the waves.
The storm was raging and the billows loud did roar
Which tossed this poor sailor all on the sea shore.

As she was a-walking down by the sea strand
She saw her drowned sailor lie dead on the ground.
And when she came near him the sight made her stand
She knew ’twas her true love by the marks on his hand.

She kissed him, she hugged him, she called him her dear,
Ten thousand times over, she kissed him there,
Saying, “I’m very well contended to lie by your side
Instead of being married in my grave here I’ll lie.”

As she was a-walking down by the sea side
And wringing of her tender hands so bitterly did cry,
Saying, “My joys are all ended, my sorrows are all fled.”
In a few moments after this young maid lay dead.

In Robin Hood’s churchyard this couple was laid
And for a memorandum a tombstone was laid.
Come all you constant lovers that here do pass by,
This unfortunate couple, how happy they lie.

Shirley Collins sings Washed Ashore

As a lady was walking down by the sea-side
A poor drowned sailor she chanced there to spy.
When first she saw the sailor, it put her to a stand
For she knew ’twas her true-love by the mark on his hand.

She put her arms round him, she called him her dear,
She wept and she kissed him ten thousand times o’er,
Saying, “Now I’m resigned to lie by your side,”
As she kissed his cold lips and heart-broken she died.

In yonder green churchyard this couple was laid
And a stone for remembrance placed over their grave.
Saying, “Our joys they are all over, all pleasures are fled,
We shall lie here forever, the grave is our bed.”

Bryony Griffith and Alice Jones sing Strawberry Tower

On Stow Brow, on Stow Brow, a damsel did dwell.
She was courted by a sailor lad and she loved him right well.
He promised for to marry her when he did return,
But a watery misfortune all on them did frown.

As he was a-sailing a storm did arise.
The moon it was shaded, and dismal was the sky.
The wind it blew raging, the billows loud did roar,
And it dashed them poor sailor lads all on the sea shore.

Now when this dreadful news reached the young damsel’s ears,
She fell a-wringing of her hands and a-tearing of her hair.
Crying, “Oh, you cruel billows, come wash my love ashore,
That I may behold his sweet features once more.”

As she was a-walking from Stow Brow to Bay,
She spied a drowned sailor lad as on the sand he lay,
And the nearer that she drew to him, it brought her to a stand,
For she knew it was her true love, by the marks upon his hand.

She kissed him, caressed him, ten thousand times o’er,
Crying, “Oh you cruel billows you have tossed my love ashore.
How happy I would be my love, to lie down by your side.”
And a few moments after, broken-hearted she died.

In Robin Hood’s Churchyard this couple was laid,
And written on their tombstone these words may be read,
“Come all you young damsels, take a warning from me:
Never let your own true love sail upon a raging sea.”


Transcribed from the singing of Lal Waterson by Garry Gillard. Thanks to Wolfgang Hell for a correction—or two.