The Leaving of Liverpool

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

“(The) Leaving of Liverpool” (Roud 9435), also known as “Fare Thee Well, My Own True Love”, is a folk song. Folklorists classify it as a lyrical lament and it was also used as a sea shanty, especially at the capstan.

It is very well known in Britain, Ireland, and America, despite the fact that it was collected only twice, from the Americans Richard Maitland and Captain Patrick Tayluer. It was collected from both singers by William Main Doerflinger, an American folk song collector particularly associated with sea songs in New York.

Maitland said he learned “The Leaving of Liverpool” from a Liverpudlian on board the General Knox around 1885. His version has the narrator leave Liverpool to be a professional sailor aboard a historical clipper ship, the David Crockett, under a real-life captain, Captain Burgess. This would date his version to between 1863, when John A. Burgess first sailed the David Crockett out of Liverpool, and 1874, when Burgess died at sea. 

Tayluer did not say exactly when he learned the song, but he was at sea by 1870, and Doerflinger generally thought his songs were older than Maitland’s. Tayluer did say that he believed the song originated during the Gold Rush, in 1849, and that it concerned a person leaving Liverpool to strike it rich in California and then return. 

“The Leaving of Liverpool” has been recorded by many popular folk singers and groups since the 1950s. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem had a top 10 hit with the song in Ireland in 1964. The song has also been adapted by several artists, most notably The Dubliners and The Pogues. (The above info from the wonderful trove of stuff in Wikipedia. Donate to it, as I do, because it is worth preserving as one of the saner sources of knowledge among what you get on other free sites.)

I first heard the song in the mid-1960s from a Clancy Brothers record belonging to my parents. I have had a handwritten version of the lyrics in my song folder for over a quarter of a century and in all that time I have not sung it in public, nor has any of the group, Banter. Don’t ask me why, as it’s a great song. Maybe it is because it got over-sung and over-played in the folk revival in the British Isles in the 60s and 70s?

In any event, I was sitting in lockdown and happened across it as I was going through my folder. I think it deserves another airing- even though dozens of examples of the song are extant out there. I treat it as a lament, rather than the lustier versions that have been favoured by some artists.

The Leaving of Liverpool

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