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A Sailor's Life - Fairport Convention

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Published on Oct 29, 2010

Fairport Convention's version of this poignant traditional song marks a pivotal point in the development of folk-rock, representing as it does a brilliant fusion of a traditional form with all the dynamic, exploratory approach of modern rock playing. The song had been a part of Sandy Denny's repertoire when she joined Fairport. As a traditional song it had been known in many forms.

A Sailor's Life starts as a plaintive lament on the fickleness of sailors and the agonised waiting endured by their sweethearts until their return. The terrible irony of her rather bitter condemnation of the sailor's life as 'merry' is brought home by the subsequent tragedy. The singer extols her beloved's virtues before she sets off to find him. She hails a passing ship and is told that he is feared drowned. Beside herself with grief and despair, she runs her boat against a rock. This could be seen as a metaphor for another tragedy as she takes her own life.

The song then echoes the stormy course of the bereaved woman's grief, as it takes off into a passage of terrific ensemble playing, all instruments interweaving, building to an overwhelming intensity, before settling to a sombre resolution. There are echoes of everything from dirges to hornpipes in an extraordinary composition.

The Unhalfbricking album, from which A Sailor's Life comes, foreshadowed the more overtly folk-rock album Liege & Lief, often considered a classic of its kind. The title Unhalfbricking was taken from a word Sandy Denny came up with in the word game Ghost. The track A Sailor's Life was done in one take.

The Basic Unhalfbricking Album Personnel

Sandy Denny - Vocals
Richard Thompson - Electric & Acoustic Guitars,
Ashley Hutchings - Bass
Simon Nicol - Electric & Acoustic Guitars, Electric Dulcimer
Martin Lamble - Drums
Dave Swarbrick - Fiddle

Martin Lamble, a talented musician, died in 1969 in a crash while returning from a gig, aged 19.

Dave Swarbrick, a highly influential fiddle player, has had health problems but joined Fairport on stage for a number in August 2010.

Simon Nicol has been the band's lead singer and guitarist since 1975.

Ashley Hutchings, an outstanding bassist, has been a major force in music and helps make folk accessible to younger listeners.

Richard Thompson has composed many acclaimed songs and tours regularly. He appears in many polls for the greatest guitarists of all time.

Sandy Denny composed many great and enduring songs. One of the greatest of English folk artists, she died 21 April 1978, aged 31, following a fall.

An annual Fairport festival takes place at Cropredy, the Oxfordshire village. The next Cropredy Convention festival will take place on 11 - 13 August 2011.


A Sailor's Life (lyrics as sung by Sandy Denny)

A sailor's life, it is a merry life.
He robs young girls of their hearts' delight.
Leaving them behind to weep and to mourn,
They never know when they will return.

"Well, there's four-and-twenty all in a row,
My true love he makes the finest show.
He's proper tall, genteel withal,
And if I don't have him, I'll have none at all."

"Oh father, build for me a bonny boat,
That on the wide ocean I may float.
And every Queen's ship that we pass by
There I'll enquire for my sailor boy."

They had not sailed long on the deep
When a Queen's ship they chanced to meet.
"You sailors all, pray tell me true,
Does my sweet William sail among your crew?"

"Oh no, fair maiden, he is not here.
For he's been drownded we greatly fear.
On yon green island as we passed it by,
There we lost sight of your sailor boy."

Well, she wrung her hands and she tore her hair.
She was like a young girl in great despair.
And her little boat against a rock did run.
"How can I live now my sweet William is gone?"


The slideshow (best viewed full-screen) is presented as a tribute to all those who have risked their lives at sea through the ages and are risking their lives today. The work of several great marine artists is represented, together with historic prints and photos. Many thanks to all the sources.

For those in peril on the sea.

  • Category

  • Song

  • Artist

    • FAIRPORT CONVENTION
  • Licensed to YouTube by

    • UMG; CMRRA, ARESA, BMG Rights Management, and 3 Music Rights Societies

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