I’m sure there must have been some dull Napoleon ballads, but those I know all have a certain majesty in both the tune and the lyrics. I learned this one from Roy Palmer’s Folk Songs collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams. It was noted down on a very productive collecting trip to King’s Lynn in Norfolk, in January 1905, from a “Mr Crist” – actually, it would seem, Mr Charles Crisp, formerly able-bodied seaman in the Merchant Navy, but by then a resident of the King’s Lynn Union (i.e. the workhouse).
This information about the singer I learned from research carried out by Katie Howson, of the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust, as part of a project called “North End Voices”, and available at http://www.eatmt.org.uk/nev_research.htm
A very similar version of the song was recorded further round the Norfolk coast from Sam Larner. First recorded in the 1950s, Larner was clearly from a different generation to Mr Crisp and the other singers from whom Vaughan Williams took down songs in Norfolk. But it’s worth remembering that he was born in 1878, so was in his late twenties when RVW came collecting; and had their paths crossed I’ve no doubt he could have provided the composer with a significant body of songs.
A Dream of Napoleon