The traditional song “A Sailor’s Life” was printed in eighteenth-century broadsides and collected by W. Percy Merrick in 1899 from Henry Hills of Lodsworth, Sussex. It was published in the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs and recorded in 1960 by A. L. Lloyd for the album A Selection from the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. It was subsequently recorded by Judy Collins on her album A Maid of Constant Sorrow in 1961 and Martin Carthy for his Second Album in 1966 with his then playing partner violinist Dave Swarbrick.
It is probably from one of these sources that the song was learnt by Sandy Denny who sang it in her solo career and then brought it to the band Fairport Convention, where with Swarbrick guesting on violin and Richard Thompson on guitar, it was released on the band’s 1969 Unhalfbricking album.
The eleven-minute version, regarded as a pivotal step in the development of British folk rock, was recorded in one take. It was a recording which marked the beginning of British folk rock, leading to the seminal album Liege & Lief later that year.
British music website Uncut describe the track as: “11 minutes of seething cymbal washes on a Celtic drone chord sequence, erupting into a middle section where squalling crosswinds are traded between Richard Thompson and guest fiddler Dave Swarbrick.” [Source: Wikipedia]
A sailor’s life, it is a merry life.
He robs young girls of their hearts’ delight,
Leaving them behind to weep and mourn,
They never know when they will return.
Well, there’s four and twenty all in a row
My true love he makes the finest show.
He’s proper tall, genteel and all,
And if I don’t have him, I’ll have none at all.
Oh father, build for me a bonny boat,
That on the wide ocean I may float
And every Queen’s ship that we pass by,
There I’ll enquire for my sailor boy
They had not sailed long on the deep
When a Queen’s ship they chanced to meet.
“You sailors all, pray tell me true,
Does my sweet William sail among your crew?”
“Oh no, fair maiden, he is not here
For he’s been drownded we greatly fear
On yon green island as we passed it by,
There we lost sight of your sailor boy.”
Well, she wrung her hands and she tore her hair.
She was like a young girl in great despair.
And her little boat against a rock did run.
“How can I live now my sweet William is gone?”