I always think of this as a Kentish song. I learned it from George Spicer, who was born at Little Chart near Ashford, and learned most of his songs as a young man in Kent. In the 1940s Francis Collinson noted it from William Crampon from Smarden. And in the 1980s, when I met Charlie Bridger, I found that he also knew the song – at least, he knew the first verse and chorus, and I was able to provide him with the rest of the words.
But of course the song was known throughout Britain, and further afield. In his notes to the Musical Traditions CD Plenty of Thyme by Suffolk singer Cyril Poacher, Rod Stradling writes
The Faithful Sailor Boy was written by George W. Persley towards the end of the 19th century. Few songs have achieved such widespread popularity among country singers and their audiences. It turns up again and again in tap-room sing-songs throughout Britain, even through into the 1980s. Gavin Greig described it as being “Very popular in Aberdeenshire in the early years of this century” (and, sure enough, Daisy Chapman had it in her repertoire), and we have heard it in both Donegal and Cork in the last few years. Two versions have been found in the North Carolina mountains (there’s a ’20s hillbilly recording by Flora Noles, Sailor Boy’s Farewell—Okeh 45037), while other other sets have been reported from as far away as Australia and Tristan da Cunha.
Actually, the authorship of the piece is unclear: the song’s entry in the New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs states
The song appeared on one or two late nineteenth-century broadsides, and was probably written about 1880. Several sources claim that it was composed by the well-known songwriters Thomas Payne Westendorf (1848-1923) and G. W. Persley (1837-94), but we have not been able to confirm this, nor have we found any original sheet music.
Although I learned this from the Topic LP Blackberry Fold I think the first time I ever heard it was at a meeting of the shortlived folk club which Alan Castle (subsequently the organiser of the long-running Tenterden Folk Festival) ran at the Victoria in Ashford, circa 1979. On that occasion it was sung by Adrian Russell, at least one of the Creissen brothers (Terry and/or Gary) and probably Tim Bull. Adrian or Gary may remember – so if you’re remotely interested (and I can’t think why you would be, to be honest), keep an eye on the Comments below this blog post.
The Faithful Sailor Boy