A Sailor's Life

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"A Sailor's Life"
Writer(s) Traditional

"A Sailor’s Life" (Roud 273; Laws K12)[1] is an English language folk song which describes the attempt of a young woman to find her lover, a sailor. Eventually she hears that he has drowned and mourns him.


The song was printed in eighteenth-century broadsides and collected by W. Percy Merrick in 1899 from Henry Hills of Lodsworth, Sussex.[1][2] 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.[2] 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.[2]

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 Dave 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.[3] It was a recording which marked the beginning of English electric folk, leading to the seminal album Liege & Lief later that year.[4]


The following can be seen as variants of the song:[5]

  • "Sailor Boy" (America)
  • "Black, Black, Was The Color Of My True Love's Hair" (America)
  • "The Lost Sailor" (Australian)
  • "The Pinery Boy"
  • "Willie the Bold Sailor Boy"
  • "Sailor on the Deep Blue Sea" (America)
  • "Sweet William"
  • "Willie Boy" (America)



  1. ^ a b "Roud Index entries". Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Retrieved 13 April 2015. 
  2. ^ a b c "'A Sailor's Life', (Mostly) English folk music". Informatik.uni-hamburg.de. Retrieved 5 February 2009. 
  3. ^ "Does my sweet William sail among your crew?". The White Noise Revisited. 2007-02-10. Retrieved 26 July 2013. 
  4. ^ Humphries, P. Meet on the Ledge, a History of Fairport Convention, London: Virgin Publishing Ltd, 2nd edn 1997, pp. 37-39.
  5. ^ "The Traditional Ballad Index entry for Sailor Boy (I), The [Laws K12]". California State University, Fresno. Retrieved 26 July 2013. 

Bibliographical source[edit]

  • Ralph Vaughan Williams and A.L. Lloyd, The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs (Penguin Books, 1959).

External links[edit]