Remembering The Old Songs:


by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, November, 2010)

This month, we're going back to a Golden Oldie. It may have already have been one when Samuel Pepys (who collected broadside ballads after he got bored with keeping a diary) acquired a copy circa 1685. The Pepys version (published by Francis James Child in his The English and Scottish Popular Ballads) runs to 32 verses, and includes specifics: James Harris was the returning sailor, who, unfortunately, had already drowned. His ghost came to tempt his betrothed, Jane Reynolds, to get on a ship with him -- a bad decision. He was really a Demon Lover, and caused the ship to sink, so he could have Jane to himself. The house carpenter (we don't know his name) was so distraught at Jane's abandonment that he hung himself, leaving the babes to care for themselves.

The abridged American version is still long, so I don't have room to say much more. This is mostly from Clarence Ashley's singing (available on, among other sources, Tom Ashley and Tex Isley, Smithsonian-Folkways CD FW 02350), but after singing it for years, I find I've added verses from other versions, so it's a truly traditional ballad: a hodgepodge that still tells a coherent story.

The tune is in an odd mode, and I usually sing it with banjo. So the guitar chords I give here may not be musically exact, but they sound reasonable to me. If you don't like them, make up your own.


Complete Lyrics:
"Well met, well met," said an old true love,
"Well met, well met," said he;
"For I've just returned from the salt, salt sea,
And it's all for the love of thee.

"It's I could have married a king's daughter fair,
I'm sure she'd have married me;
But I scorned her and all her gold,
And it's all for the love of thee."

"If you could have married a king's daughter fair,
I'm sure you're much to blame;
For I've lately been married to a house carpenter,
And I'm sure he's a fine young man."

"If you forsake your house carpenter,
And go away with me,
I'll take you to where the grass grows green
On the banks of the bonny blue sea."

"If I forsake my house carpenter,
And go away with you,
Why, you'd have nothing to maintain me on,
And then what would I do?"

"Well, I've three ships upon the sea,
All headed for dry land,
And twenty-four jolly sailor boys,
And they're all at my command."

She called, to her, her three little babes,
And gave them kisses three;
"Stay home, stay home, my three little babes,
Keep your papa good company."

They'd not been sailing for a couple of weeks,
I'm sure it was not three,
When this fair maid began to weep,
And she wept most bitterly.

"Why do you weep, my pretty fair maid,
Do you weep for your golden store?
Or do you weep for your house carpenter
That you never will see any more?"

"I am not weeping for my gold," she said,
"Neither am I weeping for my store.
But I am weeping for my three little babes,
Who I never will see any more."

They'd not been sailing for a couple of weeks,
I'm sure it was not four,
When under the deck the ship sprung a leak,
And she sank to rise no more.

Once around spun the gallant ship,
Twice around spun she;
Three times around spun the gallant ship,
And she sank in the salt, salt sea.

[Note by Bob Waltz:One interesting footnote for Minnesotans: This is, I believe, one of only five Child ballads definitely collected in Minnesota, and the only one collected more than once. M.C. Dean knew it, and it was also collected from "G.S.C." of Minneapolis in 1905, though neither version was like this one.]

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