A sailor's life is a merry life:
They rob young girls of their heart's delight,
Leaving them behind to sigh and mourn:
They never know when they will return.
Here's four and twenty in a row;
My sweetheart cuts the brightest show.
He's proper, tall, genteel withal,
And if I don't have him I'll have none at all.
"O father, fetch me a little boat
That I might on the ocean float,
And every queen's ship that we pass by
I'll make enquire for my sailor boy."
We had not sailed long upon the deep
Before a queen's ship we chanced to meet.
"You sailors all, come tell me true,
Does my sweet Willam sail among your crew?"
"Oh no, fair lady, he is not here,
For he is drown-ed, we greatly fear.
On yon green island as we passed by
There we lost sight of your sailor boy."
She wrung her hands and she tore her hair.
Much like a woman in great despair.
Her little boat 'gainst a rock did run:
"How can I live now my William is gone?"
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Source: Palmer, Roy (ed),(1986),Oxford Book of Sea Songs,Oxford, OUP
Roy Palmer's references are:
Journal of the Folk Song Society I, 99: sung by Henry Hills, Lodsworth, Sussex; noted by W.P. Merrick, 1899. Australian version: under the title of 'The Lost Sailor' on the record Martyn Wyndham-Read (leader LER 2028, 1971). Broadside: Madden 18/853. Laws K12
From the notes to the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs: (which prints the same version as here):
This favourite song has an obscure connection with another popular piece sometimes called Died For Love (from which the students' song There is a Tavern in the Town has descended). Though it lacks the central story of the girl's ocean search for her sweetheart, Died For Love has a similar tune, and some versions use the opening stanza of A Sailor's Life. In revenge, some sets of A Sailor's Life borrow the conclusion of the other song, with the girl directing that her grave be dug wide and deep, and a white turtle dove be put on it, to show that she "died for love". In fact, various singers seem to have "cross-pollinated" the two songs in several ways. Mr. Hills' version has a story at once completer and more concise than usual, and less contaminated with Died For Love. In England, the song has been reported, sometimes under the titles of Sweet William, or Early, Early all in the Spring, from Lincolnshire (FSJ vol.II [issue 9] pp.293-4), Dorset (FSJ vol.VIII [issue 34] p.212), Worcestershire (English County Songs, L.E. Broadwood, 1893), Somerset (English Folk Songs, vol.II, Cecil Sharp, 1921), and Suffolk (Six Suffolk Folk Songs, E.J. Moeran, 1932). Kidson (A Garland of English Folk Songs, 1926, p.92) prints a set of unidentified origin. Pitts and Catnach both published broadsides of the song (the latter called it The Sailor Boy and his Faithful Mary ). It seems particularly common in the United States, and has been adapted to the life of timber-raftsmen
Roud: 273 (Search Roud index at VWML) Take Six