Ships and their crews have always been essential for an island’s trade and defence. One of the most popular themes in British traditional song, and a staple product of the broadside presses, was the sailor’s return. Cecil Sharp collected this song from William Pittaway (66) of Burford, Oxon, 19th May 1923 and the 3rd verse from Ellen Powell. North America too relied on trade and the 19th century illustrations above were printed in the USA.
The ill-fated expedition of 1845 to find the North West Passage took the public’s imagination. This song appeared quite soon after it was clear that the ships, Erebus and Terror, and all the crew were lost. It was many years before Lady Jane finally gave up hope of finding her husband John or any survivors. Discoveries are gradually coming to light now, such as the remains of one of the ships and two sailors, perfectly preserved, buried in the snow. Wikipedia is well worth a read.
In this version of a widespread and ancient song, broom and a suitable spell, ensure the maiden’s safety and makes her richer by a considerable sum.
There are many traditional songs on this theme, some amusing, some not. Such marriages might be arranged for financial gain, some for status or in hope of an easier life, some in the hope that the old man might die and leave the young woman free to wed the man she loves. George Gardiner collected the song from Frank Philips of Stoney Cross, Hampshire in October 1907.
The painting is The Unequal Marriage, 1862 by Vasili Pukirev.
By the time I was fourteen I’d begun to think the folk songs we sang at school were somewhat insubstantial. I didn’t realise that verses and subjects deemed unsuitable were either altered or omitted, leaving only good tunes with weak stories. Here’s the last song in our trio on the nightingale theme, one frequently heard in the 60s and 70s folk clubs in all its naughtiness.
An Irish song with many tune variants widely found in the south of England, this version is similar to one collected by James Joyce. The photograph is Lough Ree.
This Cornish song first appeared in Ancient Poems of the Peasantry of England, 1857, by Robert Bell, who describe it as ‘a curious ditty’. In 1907 Sabine Baring-Gould & Cecil Sharp published it in English Folk-songs For Schools, which is where, in the 1950s, I sang it along with millions of other children, for it was reprinted scores of times in various books and remains well-known and frequently sung. You may notice that unlike our previous song on the same subject, there is no reference to anything saucy, such as playing a merrily on a well-tuned fiddle; it hasn’t been edited out, it was never in the song, despite the obvious gap between the lady saying no and the couple agreeing to marry.