John Riley (song)

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"John Riley" (also known as "Johnny Riley", "The Broken Token" and "A Fair Young Maid All in Her Garden", among other titles) is a traditional English folk song (Roud #264).

Joan Baez recorded the song for her debut album, Joan Baez, in 1960 and it is her version that is often credited with helping to popularise the song during the 1960s folk revival.[1][2] The duo Art & Paul also recorded the song in 1960, for their Songs of Earth and Sky album, and Judy Collins included it on her 1961 A Maid of Constant Sorrow album.[3][4] The Los Angeles folk rock band The Byrds recorded a version of the song that was influenced by Baez's rendition on their 1966 album, Fifth Dimension.[2] Carol Noonan recorded the song for her release "Carol Noonan - Self Titled" in 1999 (Carol Noonan Music).

The song is derived from Homer's Odyssey, filtered through the 17th century English folk ballad tradition, and tells the story of a prospective suitor who asks a woman if she will marry him.[2] She replies that she cannot because she is betrothed to John Riley, who has gone away over the seas. He persists, asking her whether Riley is worth waiting for and suggesting that he may have drowned, been killed in war, or married another woman. She maintains that she will continue to wait for him, irrespective of his possible fate. In the last stanza, the suitor reveals that he is in fact John Riley, returned from the seas, and has been testing his beloved. The song's theme, that of the "disguised true lover", has long been a theme in traditional folk ballads and several variations of this song exist.


A fair young maid all in her garden,
A strange young man comes passing by
Saying fair maid, will you marry me
And this answer was her reply

No kind sir, I cannot marry thee
For I've a love who sails all on the sea
He's been gone for seven years
But still no man will I marry

Well what if he's in some battle slain
Or drowned in the deep salt sea
Or what if he's found another love
And he and his love both married be?

If he's in some battle slain
I will die, when the moon doth wane
And if he's drowned in the deep salt sea
I'll be true to his memory

And if he's found another love
And he and his love both married be
Then I wish them health and happiness
Where they now dwell across the sea

He picked her up all in his arms
And kisses gave her one two and three
Saying weep no more my own true love
I am your long lost John Riley.


  1. ^ "Joan Baez album review". Allmusic. Retrieved 2009-07-27. 
  2. ^ a b c Rogan, Johnny. (1998). The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited (2nd ed.). Rogan House. p. 184. ISBN 0-9529540-1-X. 
  3. ^ "Songs of Earth and Sky review". Allmusic. Retrieved 2009-07-18. [dead link]
  4. ^ "A Maid of Constant Sorrow review". Allmusic. Retrieved 2009-07-27.