Bay of Biscay


Jon says, “My absolute favourite Tim Hart and Maddy Prior track. The harmony line is so good that it took me a very long time to work out who had the melody. I think I picked the right line!” This seems to be known alternatively as Wiilie-O, while there is at least one other completely different song known as Bay Of Biscay(-O). Just to add to the confusion, you’ll note that Willie The Waterboy is also used as the title by Brass Monkey on their recording as noted on Mainly Norfolk. There seems to be some debate about the origins of this as well although an Irish source seems most likely from the assembled notes and this Mudcat thread. To back that up to some degree, there’s a version of Willie-O from an Irish singer called Nora Clearly on Vol.3 of Topic’s Voice Of The People series, which starts with Willie’s appearance, but adds a concluding verse about the lovers meeting again “when the fishes they will fly and the seas they will dry and the rocks will melt to the sun.” This is one of the night visiting songs and it’s quite possible as that Mudcat thread suggests that the verses are a bit slippery. I’m grateful for the notes on Mainly Norfolk about the seven year period and the soul denied a Christian burial and therefore rest, as both are obviously recurring motifs. I’ve managed to find the Waterson:Carthy version of this but does anyone have the version Jon refers to? I’d like to know more about it.

You can buy the October digital album now from all good download stores:


18 Responses to “Bay of Biscay”

  1. Roberto says:

    Bay of Biscay
    Maddy Prior & Tim Hart, Folk Songs of Olde England, Vol.2, first released 1968.

    My Willie sails on board the tender
    And where he is I do not know.
    For seven long years I have been constantly waiting
    Since he crossed the Bay of Biscay-O

    One night as Mary lay a-sleeping
    A knock came to her bedroom door
    Saying, “Arise, arise, my dearest Mary
    For to earn one glance of your Willie-O”

    Young Mary rose, put on her clothing
    And to her bedroom door did go
    And there she spied her Willie standing
    His two pale cheeks as white as snow

    “Oh Willie dear, where are those blushes
    Those blushes I knew long years ago?”
    “Oh, Mary dear, the cold clay has them
    I am only the ghost of your Willie-O”

    “Oh, Mary dear, the dawn is coming
    Don’t you think it’s time for me to go?
    I am leaving you quite broken hearted
    For to cross the Bay of Biscay-O”

    “If I had all the gold and silver
    And all the money in Mexico
    I would grant it all to the king of Erin
    To bring me back my Willie-O”

    Other beautiful and important recordings, beside the one by Norma Waterson, excellent, and the one by Nora Cleary, that I do recommend, both already mentioned: Willie-O, Cathal McConnell – The Boys of the Lough, Regrouped, 1980;
    Willie Lost At Sea, Duncan Williamson, Put another log in the fire, Songs and tunes from a Scots Traveller; also as The Cruel Grave, Duncan Williamson, on Traveller’s Joy – Songs of English and Scottish Travellers and Gypsies 1965-2005, Compiled by Mike Yates – EFDSS 2006 (listed as #248);
    Biscayo, Bill Cassidy, on From Puck to Appleby, Songs of Irish Travellers in England, recordings 1973-85, Musical Traditions. A quotation from the notes: We have always thought this song to be a version of The Grey Cock, (Child 248); however, ballad scholar Dr Hugh Shields has cast serious doubt on this assumption. In two detailed articles on the subject, he argues convincingly that it is a version of a nineteenth century Irish broadside entitled Willie O, the main source of which appears to be Sweet William’s Ghost (Child 77).

  2. Simon Dewsbury says:

    Roberto – all that information by 6.49 am- I’ve barely been able to get in the shower by then!

  3. Shelley says:

    What a great song! I’m now listening to Tim and Maddy’s interpretation and I can understand the problem of picking out the melody line!

  4. Steve says:

    A lovely song. I know I only tend to comment or whinge at the podcast availability. Anyone else having this problem? Last 2 days I get the message unavailable in the UK store when I try to subscribe.

  5. Dave Eyre says:

    My own record collection turns up three versions, none of the liner notes add much. American Debra Cowan (www.Debra who often tours here, does it on “The Long Grey Line” – Falling Mountain Music FM-1036.

    Carolyn Robson ( on “All the Fine Young Men” says it is an Irish song – suggesting that Nora Cleary was her source. RVR CD 02

    Finally there is a lovely version by Kevin Dempsey and Rosie Carson ( on “The Salty Diamonds” (no number).

    The Norma Waterson version is on Broken Ground.

  6. Reinhard Zierke says:

    Nora Cleary’s “Willie-O” shares three verses with Tim Hart & Maddy Prior, The Watersons and Brass Monkey, but does not have their “Bay of Biscay” verse.
    Instead she ends with the cock-crow motif that is used in the other night-visiting song, “The Grey Cock”. That’s probably why the liner notes of “Voice of the People” list “Willie-O” as Child 248.

  7. Roberto says:

    A third recording of this ballad by Duncan Wiliamson: I Must Away,Fife Sing – Volume 4: Old Songs And Bothy Ballads.

  8. Jane Ramsden says:

    Yeh! One I have in my limited folk collection on Tim Hart & Maddy Prior’s Heydays CD!

    A sort of gender reversal of ‘She Moves The Fair.’ So sad, but not so sad that the one left behind doesn’t get to say goodbye to the ghost of the one that’s gone. I think that’s good. But gets you every time…

  9. Phil says:

    Very nice indeed, btw.

  10. StephenH says:

    I know that this site is about the song not the singer, but, I really must say that this is one of Jon’s finest efforts to date. Lovely, steady control without losing any of the emotional impact or the beauty of the melody (to quote that famous folkie, Chuck Berry). cheers.

  11. Diana says:

    Really lovely so hauntingly sad however. Jon did a great version of this.

  12. Muzza(NW Surrey-UK) says:

    I am going to learn the Tim & Maddy words and sing this song as ‘The old Man’s Lament’…Snarf snarf (as they say in the Viz comic)……

  13. Old Muzza(NW Surrey.UK says:

    It’s October….it’s raining outside…I’m all alone on AFSAD……………not a He He He or a Ha Ha Ha in sight …..and today’s offering is a SAD song……
    .tempted to peak at tomorrow’s to see if it ups the tempo

  14. Old Muzza(NW Surrey.UK says:

    PEEK..not peak………aaaarrrgh (where’s Diana when you need her)

  15. Old Muzza (NW Surrey-UK) says:

    I feel like the Lone Ranger on the comments column…..I have these songs all to myself…..and so nobody will notice if I PEEK at tomorrows song (might look at the next 10 Days songs-so there)

  16. Jane (Maryland, US) says:

    Muzza — In case you missed it, there’s a message for you and your parrot after Jersey Girl.

  17. OldMuzza(NWSurrey UK) says:

    Ha Jane(Maryland)…bless your little cotton socks…I always back-track a day or two as well as PEEKING forward (a day or two)..and I did pick up the news of your Breakfast singalong!…..incidently…my poor old parrot fell off his perch a while ago….I had to look behind me to check if he was there or not….I don’t rearrange things in the room/house very often…………naaaaahhhh…I never move stuff…….unless I trip over it!

Your Reply

Warning: Undefined variable $user_ID in /customers/a/0/f/ on line 121