“The Providence Singers ... opening entrance in the final movement was breathtaking”
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Dark-Eyed Sailor (1913)
“I had the same experience when I first heard an English folksong, when I first saw Michelangelo’s Day and Night, when I suddenly came upon Stonehenge or had my first sight of New York City – the intuition that I had been there already.”
— Ralph Vaughan Williams
Two terms into his education at the Royal College of Music, Ralph Vaughan Williams became a student of Sir Hubert Parry, in whose music he had found something “peculiarly English.” His search for musical elements of unequivocally English character — and of a quality commensurate with “the imperishable glories of English prose” — continued during Vaughan Williams’ studies with the great writer of Victorian part songs Charles Villiers Stanford, an Irishman known for his arrangements of traditional songs.
Vaughan Williams found much of what he was searching for in the musical character of English folk songs and traditional melodies. By 1903, he had begun to search for and transcribe folk songs during his travels in the countryside. “Bushes and Briars,” an early find, had a significant impact on his early orchestral works, and the character of traditional melodies would become an identifying element in Vaughan Williams’ compositions.
Like most folk songs, The Dark-Eyed Sailor’s author and date of creation are unknown, possibly late 18th century. The text and tune were tremendously popular in North America and especially in Britain in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was known by a number of titles — “Fair Phoebe,” “The Dark-Eyed Canaller,” “Young Willie’s Return,” “The Token” — and some versions had a more grandiose storyline than the text of Vaughan Williams’ arrangement. His two-year separation was seven years in some versions, and his broken golden ring was sometimes a diamond. In some, William teases the young woman a bit, telling her to put the Dark-Eyed Sailor out of her mind and find another true love. (He volunteers.) The young woman turns him down flat (“Genteel he was, and no rake like you!”); she even draws a dagger. But William produces his half of the token and the story always ends happily ever after.
Traditional English folk song, based on the Scottish ballad “Fair Phoebe”
It was a comely young lady fair,
Was walking out for to take the air;
She met a sailor all on her way,
So I paid attention to what they did say.
Said William, “Lady, why walk alone?
The night is coming and the day near gone.”
She said, while tears from her eyes did fall,
“It’s a dark-eyed sailor that’s proving my downfall.
“It’s two long years since he left the land;
He took a gold ring from off my hand,
We broke the token, here’s part with me,
And the other lies rolling at the bottom of the sea.”
Then half the ring did young William show,
She was distracted midst joy and woe.
“O welcome, William, I’ve lands and gold
For my dark-eyed sailor so manly, true and bold.”
Then in a village down by the sea,
They joined in wedlock and well agree.
So maids be true while your love’s away,
For a cloudy morning brings forth a shining day.