The topic of the sailor off to do his duty only to return and find his girl gave up on him and married another is as classic to this genre of music as trucks, heartache, and beer to country music. Nancy comes up a lot in these songs and often the name is relegated to the girl you want but proves unfaithful or even treacherous. This lyric poem cum song has many versions and is often dated to about the second quarter of the 19th century. However, Timothy Conner was an American seaman captured in 1777 by a British Man-O-War and brought back to imprisonment at England’s Forton Prison at Portsmouth. To pass the time he collected songs sung by shipmates, other prisoners, local people and his manuscript was brought back to his home upon release. It was unknown until coming to light in 1893 but not taken seriously, regarded as “coarse sailor songs” and tucked away until in 1976 George G Carey published it with his own notes and research. “A New Song No 20” does appear to be the antecedent of “Pretty Nancy of Yarmouth” but told less as a moral tale than as a less refined sailor’s song. I’ll let you decide as you read… First the version of the song as Cliff sings it and has recorded it.
Pretty Nancy of Yarmouth, she’s my own heart’s delight
And a long and kind letter unto her I did write;
All for to inform her what we had to undergo
While sailing on the ocean where stormy winds blow.
On the eighteenth of October our barque it set sail,
Pretty Nancy came down for to bid me farewell;
She said, “While you’re sailing on the wild ocean blue,”
She said, “My young sailor, I’ll be faithful to you.”
Long years then did pass when back I did return
Pretty Nancy was married, had a home of her own,
While I was a-sailing on the wide restless sea,
Pretty Nancy proved faithless and false unto me.
Come all you young sailors and listen to me
And never leave the lass you love for to plough the salt sea.
For while you are sailing on the wide ocean blue,
She’ll prove faithless like Nancy of Yarmouth to you.
And using the same melody, apply this version jotted down in Forton Prison in 1777.
Young Nancy of London who lives in tames Street (think Thames Street)
Who was courted by Jemmy that sails in the fleet
And when the stormy cold hurricanes do blow
Her heart was oppressed with sorrow and woe.
Pretty Nancy my true love my joy and delight
Receive this kind letter I’m just going to write
It is to inform you and to let you know
That on the Salt Seas many hurricanes blow.
‘Twas last Sunday evening before it was dark
Our hounoured (sic) Captain perceived a mark
All by a small cloud that appeared in the sky
And he told us of the terrible storm that was neigh (nigh)
The wind being contrary and blew us aboute (about)
Whilst many brave Seamen both Valient and Stout
Stood shivering and shacking between hope and despair
One moment below, the next in the air.
But by four in the morning just as it was day
Our honoured Captain unto us did say
Come cheer up brave lads and be of good cheer
For whilst we have sea room the least is our fear.
For a ship in distress love is a most dreadful sight,
Like an army of soldiers in a field where they fight
For a soldier may fly from the beat of his drum
But a sailor must submit to his watr’y tomb.