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O father, father, build me a boat,
That on this wild ocean I may float,
And every ship that I chance to meet
I will enquire for my William sweet.

I had not sailed more than half an hour,
Before I met with a man on board (man of war?)
"Kind captain, captain, come tell me true,
Is my sweet William on board with you?"

"Oh no, fine lady, he is not here,
That he is drown-ed most breaks my fear,
For the other night when the wind blew high
That's when you lost your sweet sailor boy."

I'll set me down, and I write a song,
I'll write it neat, and I'll write it long,
And at every word I will drop a tear,
And in every line I'll set my Willie dear.

I wish, I wish, but it's all in vain,
I wish I was a sweet maid again,
But a maid, a maid I never shall be
Till apples grow on an orange tree.
For a maid, a maid, I shall never be,
Till apples grow on an orange tree.

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Source: Broadwood, Lucy, 1893, English Country Songs, Leadenhall Press, London

Collected by Lucy Broadwood from Mrs Harley, Bewdley. She noted:

This song is a great favourite with the boys of Bewdley, who can give no account of of it, except that "there was an old man as used to sing it." The best singer, when he has ended the song always turns to the audience, remarking emphatically, "Till apples grow on an orange-tree," probably the usual custom of the old ballad singers.

This song found as The Sailor's [Soldier's] Life, The Sailing Trade, and many other titles. Reported widely in tradition in all the usual places and still current at least as late as the 1970s. There are often overlaps, as here, with Died For Love, and there is also some relationship between the tunes.

Broadside examples at ? Bodleian Library Broadside Ballads:

The sailor boy and his faithful Mary

[The maid's lament for her] sailor boy

At the ? Max Hunter Folk Song Collection:

Sailor Boy
Sailor Boy
Willie Boy
Boatman, Boatman
Black, Black, Was the Color of My True Loves Hair
Black is the Color of My True Loves Hair

The last two above offer an interesting sidelight on another song, Black is the Colo(u)r. The first is a Sailor's Life variant, while the second (one verse only) is the opening of the song popularised by John Jacob Niles and others. It seems likely that that song is a child, so to speak, of the narrative ballad, with the narrative elements lost and only the Died for Love-style verses remaining. Alternatively, the relationship may be more complex. There is a clear relationship between the tunes, as well.

In the 1960s, Fairport Convention recorded an arrangement of A Sailor's Life on their seminal folk-rock album Liege and Leaf; this was the version noted by W. Percy Merrick from Henry Hills of Lodsworth, in 1899, first published in The Journal of the Folk Song Society, vol. I issue 3, 1901, pp. 99-100.

Roud: 273 (Search Roud index at VWML) Take Six
Laws: K12

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