It was the Steeleye Span album Below the Salt which turned me onto folk music, and there was a time when I could have sung all of the songs on that LP. Including the rather lovely final track, ‘Saucy Sailor’. The album sleevenotes say that their version is “from the Journals of the Folk-Song Society. Collected by George Butterworth in Sussex, 1907”. Now that we have access to George Butterworth’s manuscripts via the Take Six website, I must admit that I can’t identify which version Steeleye were using. Not that it matters; theirs is still a very good arrangement.
In any case, I’ve moved on: about a dozen years ago I heard Vic Gammon singing a different Sussex version, and it prompted me to go looking to see what other variants I could find. This version was collected by Butterworth in May 1907, from a Mr. H. Webb at Stanton St.John in Oxfordshire, and I found it in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society Vol 4 (1913). There are four versions of the song published in that year’s Journal, two of which are from Butterworth.
Neither the Journal nor Butterworth’s MS makes it clear from whom the published set of words was collected – from Mr Webb, or a group of children from Amberley in Sussex. I was originally tempted to replace the couplet “I’ll cross the briny ocean / Where the meadows are so green”, but ultimately decided to retain it. It doesn’t make sense, but I like the idea of a singer from Oxfordshire – about as far from the sea as you can get in England – having a rather confused idea of what the sea was actually like.
You can see all of the versions of this song which Butterworth collected (listed under the title ‘Come my own one’) by following this link to the Take Six site.