Fairport Convention’s version of this poignant traditional song marks a pivotal point in the development of folk-rock, representing as it does a brilliant fusion of a traditional form with all the dynamic, exploratory approach of modern rock playing. The song had been a part of Sandy Denny’s repertoire when she joined Fairport. As a traditional song it had been known in many forms.
A Sailor’s Life starts as a plaintive lament on the fickleness of sailors and the agonised waiting endured by their sweethearts until their return. The terrible irony of her rather bitter condemnation of the sailor’s life as ‘merry’ is brought home by the subsequent tragedy. The singer extols her beloved’s virtues before she sets off to find him. She hails a passing ship and is told that he is feared drowned. Beside herself with grief and despair, she runs her boat against a rock. This could be seen as a metaphor for another tragedy as she takes her own life.
The song then echoes the stormy course of the bereaved woman’s grief, as it takes off into a passage of terrific ensemble playing, all instruments interweaving, building to an overwhelming intensity, before settling to a sombre resolution. There are echoes of everything from dirges to hornpipes in an extraordinary composition.
The Unhalfbricking album, from which A Sailor’s Life comes, foreshadowed the more overtly folk-rock album Liege and Lief, often considered a classic of its kind. The title Unhalfbricking was taken from a word Sandy Denny came up with in the word game Ghost. The track A Sailor’s Life was done in one take.
The Basic Unhalfbricking Album Personnel
Sandy Denny - Vocals
Richard Thompson - Electric & Acoustic Guitars,
Ashley Hutchings - Bass
Simon Nicol - Electric & Acoustic Guitars, Electric Dulcimer
Martin Lamble - Drums
Dave Swarbrick - Fiddle
Martin Lamble, a talented musician, died in 1969 in a crash while returning from a gig, aged 19.
Dave Swarbrick, a highly influential fiddle player, has had health problems but joined Fairport on stage for a number in August 2010.
Simon Nicol has been the band’s lead singer and guitarist since 1975.
Ashley Hutchings, an outstanding bassist, has been a major force in music and helps make folk accessible to younger listeners.
Richard Thompson has composed many acclaimed songs and tours regularly. He appears in many polls for the greatest guitarists of all time.
Sandy Denny composed many great and enduring songs. One of the greatest of English folk artists, she died 21 April 1978, aged 31, following a fall.
An annual Fairport festival takes place at Cropredy, the Oxfordshire village.
A Sailor’s Life (lyrics as sung by Sandy Denny)
A sailor’s life, it is a merry life.
He robs young girls of their hearts’ delight.
Leaving them behind to weep and to 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 withal,
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?"
The slideshow (best viewed full-screen) is presented as a tribute to all those who have risked their lives at sea through the ages and are risking their lives today. The work of several great marine artists is represented, together with historic prints and photos. Many thanks to all the sources.
James Nedresky: A brilliant performance by each member, and to me, maybe the best showcasing of their talents. When I first heard it in ’69, I felt that although it was a rendering of a traditional folk ballad, the music, especially during the break is as beautiful of a psychedelic masterpiece as anything I heard throughout that era. Incredible coordinated solos between guitar and fiddle, along with hypnotic accompaniment, making you wonder if this is not a perfect combination of folk meets acid. Even the way the piece winds down to just somber and quiet guitar chords, it wonderfully echoes Sandy Denny’s gorgeous, mesmerizing vocals. Then, as well as 45 years on, simply superb!
"On Ocean Songs, the Dirty Three have expanded themselves immeasurably as a band by holding themselves in to listen, and have made some of the most haunting, poetically profound, and emotionally honest music ever to come out of the "rock" world."
All hands on deck, we've run afloat
I heard the Captain cry
Explore the ship, replace the cook
Let no one leave alive
Across the straits, around the horn
How far can sailors fly?
A twisted path, our tortured course
And no one left alive
We sailed for parts unknown to man
Where ships come home to die
No lofty peak, nor fortress bold
Could match our captain's eye
Upon the seventh seasick day
We made our port of call
A sand so white, and sea so blue
No mortal place at all
We fired the guns, and burned the mast
And rowed from ship to shore
The captain cried, we sailors wept
Our tears were tears of joy
Now many moons and many Junes
Have passed since we made land
A Salty Dog, the seaman's log
Your witness, my own hand
#SeaShantyTikTok is currently dominating social media platforms, thanks to a rendition of 'Wellerman' by a Scottish postman and folk singer. Here, we provide a short history of sea shanties and explain what this viral trend is all about
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