Also called “I am a young maiden”. This is a song of some controversy in its origins. It most likely dates to at least the 19th century, several musicologists think more like the late 17th or early 18th, but the internet Ballad Index could only find the earliest date as 1906; this they gleaned from the book The Everlasting Circle in which author James Reeves cited his source as George Gardiner, who collected it from Mrs. Maria Etheridge of Southampton, Hampshire, on 25 June 1906 and from Alfred Fulford on Lyndhurst, Hampshire, on 1 December 1906. These being not songwriters but simply local singers of old folk songs, it is doubtful that either laid claim to having composed it. Traditional songsters claim it as Irish or Scottish or English or Welsh in origin, depending upon who you ask.
It came over to North America with the early Scots/Irish settlers who are the ballad preservers in the Appalachians, so clearly an origin prior to the cited 1906 date. It is composed of verses that are similar in theme but each stand alone, rather than the whole being a full story, and is sometimes referred to as being comprised of “floating verses”. The song is also often credited with having been composed by one or another artist who recorded it but did not lay a claim to its composition, such as Delia Murphy or Andy Stewart; this is often the case with non-historians eager to give credit of authorship for the sake of an article being written or claims by ASCAP or BMI to strongarm folk singers for singing a public domain song but, as it had been recorded by some recent artist, those organizations seek to collects monies with the fiat that the trad song was actually composed BY the recording artist. This song has NO connection or similarity to Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird”.
As with folk songs in general, the performer will add or subtract verses, do a different spin on the song, or perhaps try to sing the earliest version of the lyrics to be found. Andy Stewart of Silly Wizard gave a particularly iconic version on their 1981 record “Wild and Beautiful”, which are the lyrics that Paul sings in Bb. Some other versions have the verses being a back and forth between lovers, or the perspective of the girl left behind such as in Rick Spencer’s version, but the Andy Stewart/Paul Elliott version is all from the perspective of a love-sick sailor.
I am a young sailor, my story is sad,
Though once I was carefree and a brave sailor lad,
I courted a lassie by night and by day,
Oh but now she has left me, and sailed far away.
Oh, if I was a blackbird, could whistle and sing,
I’d follow the vessel my true love sails in,
And in the top riggin’ I would there build my nest,
And I’d flutter my wings o’er her lily-white breast.
Or if I was a scholar and could handle the pen,
One secret love letter to my true love I’d send,
And tell of my sorrow, my grief and my pain
Since she’s gone and left me on yon flowery glen.
I sailed o’er the ocean, my fortune to seek,
Though I missed her caress and her kiss on my cheek.
I returned and I told her my love was still warm
But she turned away lightly and great was her scorn.
I offered to take her to Donnybrook Fair
And to buy her fine ribbons to tie up her hair.
I offered to marry and to stay by her side
But she says in the morning she sails with the tide.
My parents, they chide me, oh they will not agree,
Saying that me and my false love, married should never be.
Oh, but let them deprive me, or let them do what they will,
While there’s breath in my body she’s the one I love still.