The version of this song popularised by The Dubliners, with it’s “Nay Nay Never” (clap – clap – clap) chorus, is probably the most widely known British folk song. Which was always reason enough for me not to feel any inclination to learn it. I was aware that there were other versions out there – Dave Townsend has a nice Hampshire version, while the Scottish singer Sylvia Barnes recorded a wonderful version with the band Kentigern (well it’s certainly wonderful when she sings it).
But I was only inspired to learn the song when I heard it sung by Norfolk fisherman Sam Larner, on the Topic CD reissue of the 1961 LP Now Is The Time For Fishing.
Sam’s tune is very closely related to that commonly used for ‘The Blackbird’ and it seemed to me quite different from the usual version. However Brian Peters, on the TradSong forum, has presented a very credible argument that in fact, just as The Dubliners got ‘Black Velvet Band’ from Norfolk singer Harry Cox (via Ewan MacColl) Sam Larner’s version may well have been the source of their ‘Wild Rover’. The Dubliners are thought to have learned it from Louis Killen, and it seems likely that he got it from Ewan MacColl, who had recorded the song from Larner in the late 1950s. Brian writes
The MacColl / Dubliners melody sounds to me precisely the kind of thing you’d expect, if the Larner melody had been tweaked to turn it into something subtly different – I’ve done that kind of thing myself and know the tricks, and I understand that MaColl had form on that score. The changes (a slight narrowing of range, a more frequent resolution on the tonic, for instance) serve to make the tune simultaneously less interesting musically, and more accessible.
Whatever the truth, The Dubliners produced a popular classic, and I prefer the way Sam Larner sang it!
The Wild Rover