Sir Patrick Spens


Jon calls this “One of the finest ballad melodies going, as discovered by Nic Jones. I heard this first from a brilliant version on Martin Carthy’s Signs Of Life album, and have had the great privilege of playing on Martin Simpson’s equally brilliant version. No surprise then that I didn’t opt for a guitar accompaniment on this one…”

Mainly Norfolk has Nic’s original LP notes and you’ll see from that the suggestion that he has adapted the tune from Christie’s Traditional Ballad Airs, although the use of the word “basically” suggests a tweak. This is another of the Child collection (#58) and a good epic tale of Scottish origin. Wiki here suggests a basis in historical fact, although Sir Patrick Spens has no historical record. It suggests two voyages shipping Scottish royalty across the sea and I’ve read elsewhere that this ballad is an amalgam of both. If they both ended so badly then that would seem an exceptional tragedy. I was intrigued by the lines about

“Last night I saw the new moon
With the old moon in her arm,

and have read that this is caused when light from the sun is reflected off the earth creating a crescent shaped halo effect. Wiki also offers a good list of the various recorded versions of this. Martin’s version that Jon refers to is from the excellent True Stories, on which Jon plays fiddle. It’s easy to see the appeal of this great ballad and I think it works really well unaccompanied, as it has such a strong narrative to it and it gains the sense of the epic tale handed down. This link will give you all manner of Child collection variations that the singers amongst you may find useful for your own variations.

You can buy the February digital album now from all good download stores.


12 Responses to “Sir Patrick Spens”

  1. Phil says:

    Great stuff. It is more or less the Nic Jones tune, but I hadn’t heard exactly this version of the words – more like Bellamy’s Maritime England version (although I’d never heard the lines where they try to hold the ship together with string before).

    Obligatory plug: on my neglected Myspace page you can hear not only my Sir Patrick Spens but my This Is The Ballad Of Sir Patrick Spens, a self-composed number of which I am slightly ashamed.

  2. muzza(s.e.England) says:

    @ Phil-ashamed? you rascal. Methinks …. too much of the king’s ‘Blood red wine Sir!’

  3. Jane Ramsden says:

    Great words to this song and Phil, your version did make me laugh! Now you couldn’t write that without knowing the words of the original well and other things, like the allusions to Nic Jones, and ‘whither’ and ‘whence’! No need to be ashamed. That could go down very well in a folk club or pub. Very well thought out!

    If I could get my dulcet Yorkshire tones into this ‘ere computer, I’d torture you all… now that’d be sthg to be ashamed of! Hahahahaha!

    Well sung, Jon. Almost one of those hard-to-hold-onto tunes. I can see accompaniment lifting it with variation, but I listened to the words more unaccompanied.

  4. Piers Cawley says:

    Fabulously sung Jon. It’s a mighty song and no mistake.

    Gill reckons, and I think she’s right, that a fiddle-singing version would be very spiffy indeed.

  5. Mark says:

    That ascending bit is brilliant, great rendition Jon.

  6. Diana says:

    I enjoyed this one tremendously – it cheered me up no end after the last two days rather dismal songs.

    There is reams of information and other versions on Mainly Norfolk – well worth a look.

  7. Richard says:

    Excellent stuff, most familiar with the Fairport version but this is stirring and no mistake.

  8. Phil says:

    52 Folk Songs did Sir Patrick a couple of weeks back; you can hear two different versions and something else here.

  9. Muzza (N.W.Surrey-UK) says:

    Tune?…………not memorable…………..
    Mainly Norfolk has an excellent video and photos of Sandy Denny…..the tune she uses is not memorable to me either…..(old grumpy pants)

  10. Diana says:

    Hi old grumpy pants. Not a tune to find oneself humming at any time later.

  11. Diana says:

    Still a great one sung well by Jon.

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