One of the problems with traditional music (which is also one of the things I love about it) is the number of variations you get on the same narrative, theme or melody. The older or more popular, the more variations you tend to get. This song is a case in point. Although it undoubtedly originated in the Northeast of England with the opening line of Come here, maw little Jacky and the Dance To Thy Daddy as a chorus, it has travelled all over the place from southern England to Ireland and Scotland and, I am told, there is a USA version collected in the early 20th century in Kentucky - I have not heard this version myself, however.
The original version tells the story of a hapless family of alcoholics who are dirt-poor because of their drinking, but convince themselves and their children that one day their boat will come in and they will at last be well fed. A sample of this version will give an idea of the mood of the song:
I like a drop mysel',
When I can get it sly,
And thou, my bonny bairn,
Will lik't as well as I.
Dance ti' thy daddy, sing ti' thy mammy,
Dance ti' thy daddy, ti' thy mammy sing;
Thou shall hev a fishy on a little dishy,
Thou shall hev a mackerel when the boat comes in.
A more optimistic version (without a suggestion of booze) was collected by Cecil Sharp in 1909 from one Sister Emma of Clewer in Berkshire. It is listed as incomplete in his Collection of English Folk Songs (Oxford University Press, NY & Toronto, 1974) but I have heard numerous versions and variations of this tune and lyric and all seem pretty complete to me.
The version sung here is the Sister Emma one, to all intents and purposes, with only minor word changes here and there, but with the addition of verse three, which is my own.
This more optimistic version has the children dancing with delight at their fisherman, father returning from sea, pleased that he has brought fish for the table. The parents are predicting a rosy future for their kids - the daughter is to me married off and they are hoping to raise a dowry for her. The boy is to be a fisherman like his father, but with a boat of his own - he will be a captain, hence the rings and a silver buckle. Much as I love a depressing folk song, I do prefer this more optimistic version as it goes better with the tune.
British people of my age and older will recognise the tune as it was used for the very popular 1970s drama, starring James Bolam, When The Boat Comes In.
Thee or Thy= Your
Thou shalt=You will or may
Fin=Fillet (of fish)
Codlin=Cod (portion of)
Pitch=Tar-based waterproofing used by sailors
Coble=Small, open fishing boat (pron. Cobble)