Saucy Sailor


Jon says,“The Steeleye version of this is one of my favourite of their tracks,” but goes on to name his source for this as The Witches Of Elswick adding, “but this version is much more robust and most suited for massed voices.” Having managed to put my hands on their version (on the Hells Belles CD) I have to agree, as they do it so very well with four part harmony to kill for.  Their sleeve notes humorously refer to Bryony Griffith hearing it, aged 14, on a borrowed copy of a Steeleye album and she“was most impressed that a folk song had her name in it.” (It took me a moment!) But their recorded version was eventually “found in a Baring Gould and Cecil Sharp book of English Folk Songs For Schools.” I turned to Mainly Norfolk for the usual detailed illumination into the recordings and note an early Bellamy version, now to be found on the Fellside double CD set Fair England’s Shore. It’s shorter and not quite as mellifluous as the Witches’ or indeed Jon’s versions. Steeleye go a bit further and really bring out the slightly dissonant drone in the second half of the verse in their arrangement, which I also really like. I know some of you won’t fully approve of their rockisms, but I’ve realised I’ve got some serious shopping to do. In the meantime get those harmonies working see what you can do.

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



43 Responses to “Saucy Sailor”

  1. Reinhard says:

    I just got Fay Hield’s CD Looking Glass today, and a very fine one it is! After hearing it over and over it was quite late in the evening, so I thought why not wait up until it’s one o’clock and I can hear Jon’s next song. I spent the time until then reading and reminiscing on Fay’s Witches records. Funny that immediately after I can compare their Saucy Sailor to Jon’s. Thank you, both Fay and Jon, for your wonderful music!

  2. Jane Ramsden says:

    I’m with Jon on this song as I have always loved it, and indeed the whole of Below The Salt. Sounds like I will have to do some shopping too though and sample Fay’s music more.

  3. Shelley says:

    Ah lovely – one of my favourite songs to sing unaccompanied, although I follow the Steeleye version of the words and tune. However, I’ve recently come to learn this version (and have had fun improvising harmonies) at Jon and Fay’s Royal Traditions. Mawkin:Causley do a rather cheeky interpretation of it too (but they would, wouldn’t they?)

  4. Roberto says:

    I’ve noticed that sometimes you cite as your source for a song a version by artists that got theirs from traditional singers you don’t mention. In this case, why Steeleye Span and not Johnny Doughty?

  5. Reinhard says:

    I think Simon relies on the information that’s easily available. You will probably have noticed that my website gets cited fairly often because Jon and I seem to have somewhat similar taste in songs 😉 Now, my website started as a fan website for revival artists like Steeleye Span and grew via Martin Carthy, Watersons and Peter Bellamy to a point where I now try to build a complete illustrated Topic records discography. When I now edit information about a song I try to add a bit of its history but most of the pages still have only information about song versions on the records I had then. A Folk Song a Day is a great motivation for me to go over my pages but of course I’m usually a day or two late as I am not clearvoyant enough to know in advance what’s coming 😉

  6. Matthew Edwards says:

    Good question Roberto; I’ve been wondering about this too, but one thing I’ve learned from this site is that for Jon people like Peter Bellamy, Lou Killen, Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, Tim Hart and Maddy Prior are his source singers, to some extent. These are the singers and the songs that first inspired him, as well as the Forest School Camps so it is only natural that his repertoire should reflect this. I know that Jon listens to a lot more, but these are the songs he sings because he knows them and loves them – and you can tell from the way he sings them that he has lived with these songs for a good while.
    What will be really interesting is to see what happens when Jon has to add new songs to get through the whole year, but I’m just enjoying every minute of this.


  7. admin says:

    Hi folks, thanks for the above and just to make it clear, I have a list from Jon that names his original inspiration for learning the songs. As some have pointed out above, these are often not the original sources, versions, or indeed from the first of the revival singers. I guess it’s partly a function of his age and the music he was first exposed to, but we all have different ways into this. I use Jon’s list and any comments he has added to start the introduction and then, with the help of people like Reinhard and his excellent Mainly Norfolk as well as Mudcat, try to find any additional information that I hope will interest you. Reihard is also right to point out that I can only go so far with this and the links are only meant to give you a start should you want to discover more. Also, I’ve quickly realised that it’s impossible to be definitive anyway and that there are people posting here regularly that know far more about the music than I do. So, I can only encourage you to add any detail you can for our general enlightenment. Anything that adds to the story will always be welcomed. And Matthew, I agree. Jon too has already acknowledged he will have to expand his repertoire, so we are all learning through this project.

  8. Jo Breeze says:

    More about Saucy Sailor from the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at the English Folk Dance and Song Society.

    There are 93 records of Saucy Sailor in the Library, collected from various places in the south of England and also from Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.

    We used the Roud number to cross reference against different titles for the song. When searched on Roud No. 531, this rises to 101 records. Titles include ‘Jack Tar’ (from the singing of Bob Copper), ‘I’m To Cross’, ‘Come My Own One’ and ‘I Love Me Bonny Sailor Lad’.

    If you wish to see more detail on each record, change the ‘output’ to ‘record’ and press ‘submit query’.

    There are 4 records of the song in the Take 6 archives.

    We use the Roud index and the Take 6 online collections in the search for information on Jon’s selections.

    For more information, or to carry out your own search for songs, please visit

    If you need any help accessing the library online or have any questions, please contact the VWML on 020 7485 2206 or

  9. Jo Breeze says:

    Roberto – to speak personally, I’d agree with admin’s comments; as you can see from all the links and information everyone posts, there is rarely (if ever) a definitive version of a song. I like to find out the routes that the songs take – it would be disingenous of Jon to claim that he learned a song from the singing of Johnny Doughty if he actually learned it from Steeleye Span! And I think that’s an interesting thing in itself, that some people are learn songs from revival singers of the 60s or even later.

    Provided everyone credits where they learned the song from, I think that’s a really interesting way of tracing the ways the songs have moved around and perhaps changed in a very short space of time – plus it means the information is there for anyone who wants to research it further, and find out (say) where Steeleye Span got their version from.

  10. OxFox says:

    Some songs are just great to listen to, but I’d never be able to do them justice. This one, however, inspires a different reaction: having heard Jon’s version, I want to learn it and sing it myself. Lovely song, Jon, thanks!

  11. Brian says:

    I much prefer Jon’s ending to verse 5 “when there’s others to be had” rather than the equivalent ending of the two versions on Mainly Norfolk,namely “where no fortune’s to be had”. The former is far more poignant and is more in fitting with the philosophy of the rest of the song.

  12. Phil says:

    Below the Salt was the first Steeleye Span album I bought, back in 1973 (my friend already had a copy of Parcel of Rogues) and at the time I loved this song to death – so much so that now I’m actually a bit bored with it (but I haven’t listened to Jon’s rendition yet – I’m listening to Justin Bieber at the moment).

    I didn’t start performing till years later, and when I did I was convinced that everyone else would be singing songs they’d learnt at Walter Pardon’s knee – to have learnt something from a record was terribly embarrassing, let alone a record that had actually been in the charts. Obviously I eventually realised that most other people were also working from records, but it took a while – so I’m all in favour of Jon crediting songs to Bellamy or Carthy or Steeleye, just for demystification’s sake.

  13. Phil says:

    PS any idea why my iTunes isn’t letting me subscribe to the podcast?

  14. admin says:

    Phil sorry to say we have no idea why you’re experiencing problems with the podcast as it seems to be fine at our end.

  15. Phil says:

    Fixed (my iTunes “Parental” settings were at fault).

  16. Matthew Edwards says:

    I think Reinhard and others have commented that the podcasts arrive via iTunes at somewhat erratic intervals; sometimes early, and occasionally as much as a day or two late. I’ve just listened to a sneak preview of tomorrow’s song, and what a delicious treat it is! Wild horses however would not make me reveal it….:-)


    By the way Reinhard, I’ve just been exploring more of your Mainly Norfolk site, and may I say what a wonderful resource it has become. The Topic Discography is a superb achievement. Well done indeed!

  17. John Burton says:

    While Jon quotes Steeleye Span as his origin, the songs which he sings have undergone a Jon Boden folk process.
    It happens to me too (just not as well) I learn a song from a recorded source, a couple of years later I go back to the source and find a different tune and different verses than I learned. It is then your version of the song.
    I would suggest that people find Jons source material and verify that, then look up differnt versions of the words and cobble together your own version.
    Who knows by day 365, Jon may be singing your version of songs which he downloaded from Youtube, OK maybe not.

  18. Reinhard says:

    Thank you, Matthew, for your praise! Did you notice that I named my website to honour Peter Bellamy and his first album which has Saucy Sailor on it? By the way, I’ve just added the Witches’ and Jon’s verses; now you can compare them to the somewhat different versions of Bellamy and Steeleye Span.

  19. Jon Boden says:

    Just to clarify – my source isn’t Steeleye, but Bryony Griffiths and The Witches of Elswick. Bryony got it out of Sharp and tweaked the tune and refrain structure a bit I think. It was my favourite track of theirs so I had to learn it!

    As far as letting a song evolve away from the source, I prefer the old fashion method: hear a song you like, learn it, then try to avoid referring back to that source again – if you forget the odd bit, make it up. After all that’s basically what Harry Cox et al did aint it? I find the song evolves pretty naturally that way.

  20. Roberto says:

    I agree that it is honest to cite the actual source from where you learn a song. And there is nothing wrong in learning from a recording. I do like Jon Boden’s singing, both when alone or in a band like Bellowhead, but in a song such as this, it seems to me more on the same wavelenght as Johnny Doughty’s than the Steeleye Span’s, whose recording I like, but I feel Johnny Doughty’s is more interesting for a performance without accompaniment, more open to variations. That’s why I asked.

  21. Roberto says:

    Sorry, I hadn’t read Jon Boden’s post before writing mine.

  22. admin says:

    I was going to dive in and say that we’re getting a bit carried away with the Steeleye stuff here, but note Jon has already pointed to the Witches Of Elswick. As I said at the top it’s their somewhat sweeter tune he follows. His comment on Steeleye and subsequent research did, however, prompt some immediate e-bay action on my part and I look forward to vinyl copies of Below The Salt, Parcel Of Rogues and Please To See The King being delivered imminently. There will be other acquisitions inspired by this project for sure.

  23. Reinhard Zierke says:

    admin, to carry this even further away, Below The Salt, Parcel Of Rogues and the three following albums are available at Amazon in a 3CD box called A Parcel of Steeleye Span for just 5.67 GBP – only half of what the Witches’ CD with Saucy Sailor on it costa.

  24. admin says:

    Thanks Reinhard… Always vinyl for me if I can, but that’s remarkably good value. Did you get my mail?

  25. James F says:

    bloody fine singing Jon

  26. Hi all, Bryony Ocean here! I sang this with Becky in the Res in Whitby last week. I had thought of revisiting it with mine and Will’s duo, but I don’t think we’ll ever beat the 7 part harmony we did on it with Witchnotes!

    This version isn’t particulary influenced by the Steeleye one…..the title caught my eye in a tatty old Sharp & Baring Gould book because I knew the name from the Steeleye one, which, it’s true, I had always liked because it sounded like it had my name in….

    I would’ve said it came straight from the book, but actually, having just dug out the book, I seem to have changed the tune and quite a few words and added the refrain. Not sure where the final verse is from either….but that’s the tradition for you. Ta for singing it Jon

  27. Yehudit says:

    This was also on Frankie Armstrong’s first record, which I think came out before Below the Salt. There were liner notes on the LP but I don’t remember where she wrote she got it from.

  28. Mike Armstrong says:

    Notes by A. L. Lloyd from Frankie’s LP refer to broadside printers, John Pitts 1815, Disley and Hodges c. 1860 and Henry Such at the end of the century, with the tune collected by Cecil Sharp in Somerset.

  29. Jane Ramsden says:

    Thanks to ‘Bryony Ocean’ for posting the Witches of Elswick link to their version of this song. I must have missed it first time round. Absolutely lovely!

    A Steeleye Span-inspired version by the harmonic Wailin Jennys (I jest not! Should that be Whalin’ to go with the Bryony Ocean?) can be found here:

    And (although they have a ‘bright’ not ‘bryony’ ocean!) a very nice accapella version out of Whitby Folk Club here:

    Or you can have very accompanied arrangement with a Spanish flavour from the Quadriga Consort, the Austrian Ensemble for Early Music:

    (More of them and British early music at

    Finally here’s Steeleye’s ‘Below the Salt’ version (or should that be ‘Below the Briny?’)

  30. John Biggs says:

    I really love this version by Jon with it’s rough authenticity. A few glasses clinking in the background, some talk and laughter, shut your eyes, and you could be in any quay side ale house.

  31. Muzza(NW Surrey-UK) says:

    @Jon comment above “As far as letting a song evolve away from the source, I prefer the old fashion method: hear a song you like, learn it, then try to avoid referring back to that source again – if you forget the odd bit, make it up. After all that’s basically what Harry Cox et al did aint it? I find the song evolves pretty naturally that way.”

    Old Muzza agrees to a point……BUT…if I know the WRITER, I am honour bound to acknowledge this and make a record in my “songbook”….
    where I first heard it is not important.
    Another point…I sometimes change words and after a few outings I realise why the original words were correct…and humbly change them back.
    I have friends who stick rigidly to the original words that they learned, without question, even though they don’t make sense.
    Back to the Saucy sailor song………nothing changes does it…………
    as Mrs. Merton so succinctly put it…”and what first attracted you to Millionaire X”

  32. Diana says:

    Another good one. A gold digger female – wot a change Got her just deserts (know this is the correct word although I prefer desserts).

    Muzza there you are – you have been missed you know – hope all is well with you.

  33. John Bryson says:

    I first head this from Steeleye Span – liked the song all those years ago, still do.

    I think this is a super version by Jon

  34. Diana says:

    Yes I agree with John.

  35. Linda says:

    Saucy sailors seem to have a better chance with the ladies if they declare there gold and silver fortunes early ……
    @Muzza have emailed you.

  36. OldMuzza (NWSurrey UK) says:

    Ref the Steeleye Span link above ….I just love Maddy Prior’s voice…so unusual.
    I was at one of her concerts, many years ago, and in the interval I met her and ventured that her backing band wasfar too loud….and they adjusted it for the second session!

  37. Jane (Maryland) says:

    Here’s a delightful version with “Bryony Ocean,” Jon, and Fay.

  38. Linda says:

    Can’t beat a saucy sailor….. See there’s a new CD due out Sea Shanty Sessions featuring Jon , Seth Lakeman and others Look forward to that…

  39. Jane (Maryland) says:

    Well, that was silly. It’s right there on Mainly Norfolk. When found the video on YouTube to send to a friend I obviously forgot where I had seen it to begin with 🙃

  40. OldMuzza(NWSurreyUK) says:

    Oi you two…Lindy Lou and Jane (Maryland)….what’s all this peeking a day early!
    Love Steel eye Span version and Jon’s rendition…….had to chuckle at Jane’s video above of Bryony Ocean and ‘friends’…..can we believe that the reserved, male backing singer is the same shiny suited dynamo that usually thrashes about the stage. Must be dosed up on that calming stuff they put in my tea when I did National service!

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

    I’m definitely losing it….fancy posting this comment under the wrong song yesterday!
    lucky nobody reads this stuff!

    Ha…a couple of things…
    I abso-so-blooming-lutely loved the Bryony Ocean video.
    Ref the key in which to start…pity they didn’t have the mandatory ‘Copper Family’ tuning fork secreted about somebody’s personage.
    (I usually hum through to the highest note in the song.. and work backwards to the start
    (Just me then)
    If only they’d have drawn both sets of curtains…we could have had a nice background and stopped worrying as to when the next van was going to drive past the window!
    and finally…… a novelty for really desperate old tossers like me….at around 3minutes 8 seconds into the video….a tiny spider appears in the white space just above Bryony’s left shoulder and ‘descends’ by 3:29! (every folk club has got one!)..Old blokes-I ask yer!

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