John Hughson SA1972.99.9
This rather literary poem was composed by the London poet and playwright John Gay (1685-1732), and Richard Leveridge, a leading singer on the London stage, fitted them to a tune. They were printed in the same year by John Watts in The Musical Miscellany.
Admiral Sir Cyprian Bridge remarked, “I never heard this song sung by sailors, or even alluded to by them, notwithstanding it’s being so well-known ashore,” (quoted in Christopher Stone’s Sea Songs and Ballads 1906). He didn’t bargain for the relish with Whalsay men might seize on any song connected with a sailor’s life.
Johnny told me that he got the words from a book and the tune from other Whalsay men. The tune is remarkably close to that printed by Watts as are many versions collected not only in England but also as far afield as Nova Scotia and the southern USA – a testament to its popularity both orally and in print, despite Admiral Bridge’s comment. See Steve Roud’s Index no. 560 where he lists lists over 133 sources.
The original poem contains three other verses less crucial to the simple narrative but John’s words are nearly identical to the printed version – perhaps a result of it being sold by the Edinburgh printer Sanderson whose penny song-sheets were popular in Whalsay as late as the 1940s. Not surprisingly other Whalsay contributors recorded fragments of this song (see William Hutchison of Creadieknowe), though John’s is the longest.
All in the downs the fleet lay moored
Their banners leaping in the wind
When dark-eyed Susan came on board
“Oh where shall I my true love find
Tell me you joyous sailors tell me true
Does my sweet Willie, Does my sweet Willie
Sail among your crew?”
Oh Willie who high upon the yard
Rock’d by the billows to and fro
Soon as that well-known voice he heard
He sighed and cast his eyes below
The cord glides swiftly thro’ his glowing hand
And quick as lightning, and quick as lightning
On the deck he stands
“Oh Susan, Susan lovely dear
My vows shall ever true remain:
Let me kiss off that falling tear
We only part to meet again.
Change as you list, you stars; my heart shall be
That faithful compass, that faithful compass
That still points to thee.”
“If to fair Indian shores we sail
Thy eyes are seen like diamonds bright like bright
Thy breath is Afric’s spicy gales
Thy skin like ivory so white,
Thus every beauteous object that I view,
Wakes in my so-ul, wakes in my so-ul
Some charm of lovely Sue.”
The boatswain gives that dreadful word
Their sails their swelling bosom spread
Since she can no longer stay on board
They kiss’d, she sigh’d, he hung his head
Her less’ning boat unwilling rows to land;
“Adieu,” she cried, “Adieu,” she cried,
And waves her lily-white hand.