Remembering the Old Songs:

The Leaving of Liverpool

by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, March 1998)

Those of you who follow this series closely (I think there are two of you) have probably noticed that Lyle and I choose slightly different sorts of songs. His tend to be authentic Appalachian version; I'm more likely to come up with something popularized and/or collated.

I think this is the result of a sort of historical accident -- said accident being the Great Sixties Folk Scare. Lyle preceded the Scare; I grew up on it.

Now the Folk Scare did a great deal of harm -- for one thing, it fostered the pernicious idea that a singer/songwriter can be a "folk singer" and that his or her compositions can be "folk songs." I'm not sure folk music has even yet recovered from that particular disaster. (At least, there are a lot of songwriters out there who still call themselves "folk singers.") But the Folk Scare also did quite a bit to open out folk music to new influences. Since recordings are slowly contaminating the wells of tradition, this is all to the good. But it does mean that people like me often know "mixed" versions of songs -- recordings that are neither fish nor fowl, but use elements of multiple traditions.

Bluegrass, which is itself a fusing of other styles, is not immune to this. This month's song is not bluegrass. It's not old time. It's not even American. But it apparently gave rise to two, count them, two pieces that occur in the bluegrass repertoire. The first of these is the Bob Dylan song Fare Thee Well, recorded by The Hillmen. It's more or less a straight rip-off of this piece -- same tune, some of the same words, and a lot of the same plot. The second is Randy Scruggs's instrumental Highway's End. Scruggs's tune is not the same as The Leaving of Liverpool, but there are enough phrases in common to suggest influence.

As a traditional song, The Leaving of Liverpool is almost dead. So far as I know, it has only been collected once -- from Richard Maitland, of Sailor's Snug Harbor. He learned it on board the General Knox around 1885. It was printed in William Main Doerflinger's Sailors and Lumbermen. But it continues to float around among folkies, which is where Dylan, and perhaps Scruggs, heard it.

You'll almost certainly never hear this song done "bluegrass" (except, perhaps, as an instrumental). But whenever you hear its offspring, remember the parent that once was heard on sailing ships throughout the British Empire.

The text given here is that of Doerflinger. You can find a recording on Ewan MacColl and A. L. Lloyd's A Sailor's Garland; this is the only recording I know of that really follows Maitland's version (which almost inevitably means the LP is out of print). Other versions almost always fix the song up -- e.g. a lot of people sing the last line "when I think of thee" rather than "on you."

This song works out beautifully on the guitar in G, but that may be a bit low for singing. You will probably want to capo it to the key of A, especially if you work with a fiddle player. Depending on your style (I fingerpick the piece), you may want to omit the Am chords and play D chords instead.

The Mersey is the river of Liverpool. The Davy Crockett was a well-known clipper ship of the nineteenth century.

Leaving of Liverpool

Complete Lyrics:

Fare you well, the Prince's Landing Stage,
River Mersey, fare you well.
I'm off to California,
A place I know right well.

So fare you well, my own true love,
And when I return, united we will be.
It's not the leaving of Liverpool that grieves me
But my darling, when I think on you.

I'm off to California,
By the way of the stormy Cape Horn,
And I will send to you a letter, love,
When I am homeward bound.

Farewell to Lower Frederick Street,
Anson Terrace and Park Lane;
Farewell, it will be some long time
Before I see you again.

I've shipped on a Yankee clipper ship,
Davy Crockett is her name;
And Burgess is the captain of her,
|And they say she's a floating hell.

It's my second trip with Burgess in the Crockett,
And I think I know him well.
If a man's a sailor, he can get along,
But if not, he's sure in hell.

The tug is waiting at the pierhead
To take us down the stream.
Our sails are loose and our anchor secure,
So I'll bid you good-bye once more.

I'm bound away to leave you,
Good-bye, my love, good-bye.
There ain't but one thing that grieves me;
That's leaving you behind.


As noted, the only collection of this song is that printed by Doerflinger. There are modernized versions in publications such as Soodlum's Irish Ballad Book, but all of these are updates of the Maitland/Doerflinger version.

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