'Tis of a servant girl in Saxon Street did dwell,
Unknown to her master or mistress as well,
She took a sailor boy home with her to tea,
And this was the beginning over all this misery.
Singing home, dearest, home and there let it be,
Far far away from me own country.
The oak and the ash and the bonny elum tree,
They're all growing green in the North Country.
She jumped into bed without the least alarm,
Never thinking that the sailor boy would do her any harm,
Oh, he huddled her and cuddled her all the night long,
And many a time they wished it had been ten times as long.
Now if it be a girl she'd have to wear a ring,
And if it be a boy he must fight for his king,
With his high top boots and jackets all in blue,
He must walk the quarter deck as his daddy used to do.
Now, all you servant girls, a warning take from me,
And never trust a sailor boy an inch above your knee,
For I trusted one and he rewarded me,
For he left me with a pair o' twins to dangle on me knee.
This is a traditional song about Yorkshire.
This version is taken directly from the singing of Arthur Wood of Littlebeck as recorded by Mary and Nigel Hudleston in 1960 at his then Middlesborough home. (See Hudleston, Songs of the Ridings, 2001, p248) It is interesting that Arthur Wood replaced the final word of the last two choruses with 'Amerikee'. 'North Amerikee often turns up in many other British versions.
If not heavily printed on broadsides this song was at least widely printed in the nineteenth century. The earliest c1830 appears to be a seven-stanza version printed by John Pitts of Seven Dials, later re-issued by Henry Disley, one of his successors. A similar six-stanza version was printed by one of Pitts' contemporaries, Jennings of Fleet Street. Lacking any sort of chorus these three versions carried the title The Servant of Rosemary Lane. Under the title The Boys of Cork City it was printed by J & H Baird of Cork, with some additions from The Boys of Kilkenny stock of stanzas, still with no chorus. Then a version by Belfast Poet's Box under the title The Lass that Loved a Sailor appeared in the late nineteenth century, and though no chorus is apparent it has for its penultimate line 'And the ash, and the oak, and the bonny willow tree'. This version must have been influenced by one which had the 'Oak and ash' chorus. As far as broadside versions go the full chorus did not appear until very late in the nineteenth century on a broadside printed by Sanderson of Edinburgh. In this version the oak and the ash are accompanied by 'the birken (birch) tree'. This third tree seems to vary a lot from version to version in later oral tradition. It is quite significant that in the broadside versions 'Rosemary Lane' mentioned in the first line is totally consistent even if it varies somewhat in later oral tradition as Arthur Wood's version demonstrates. I can find no trace of a 'Saxon Street' in North Yorkshire. According to Roy Palmer in Everyman's Book of British Ballads p78, 'Rosemary Lane was a thoroughfare near London Docks renowned for its street stalls. (It is now called Royal Mint Street)'.
Many oral versions have been collected in all parts of the English-speaking world and in America it has been parodied on several occasions. A forces version Bell-bottom Trousers became very popular during World War Two, even being published as a chart song and rapidly re-entering oral tradition. This version must have evolved from one of the many widely varying American forces variants.
South coast English versions often lack the chorus and utilize a wide variety of tunes. The chorus is of course much older than the song having been added some time during the nineteenth century. It can be traced back at least to 1640 under the title Wanton Northern Lasse, and J W Ebsworth in volume 7, p170, of The Roxburghe Ballads states it 'is not improbably the work of Martin Parker', a prolific writer of ballads whose work frequently turns up in mutilated form in later centuries, though he was not averse to incorporating traditional pieces into his work himself. A later chorus of c1680 runs:
'O the Oak, the Ash and the bonny Ivy Tree,
Doth flourish at home in my own country.'
The first half of the chorus may have evolved in Scotland where these two lines were appropriated by many a Scottish poet. The full four-line chorus is also used in the Scots song Hame, Dearie, Hame which seems to be an adaptation of The Oak and the Ash. See volume 5, pp545-552 of The Grieg-Duncan Folk Song Collection. Other north country songs utilize the chorus, several known as The North-country Maid/Lass. One of the earliest of these brings us back to the North Yorkshire Moors region in that the maid hailed from Dalby Forest.
For comparison there follows the version I have often sung in folk clubs:
Who wouldn't be a sailor lad a-sailing on the main,
To gain the good will of his captain's good name;
He came ashore one evening from the sea,
And that was the beginning of me own true love and me.
And it's home, boys, home, home I'd like to be,
Home for a while in me own countery,
Where the oak and the ash and the bonny ivy tree
Are all a-growing greener in me own countery.
He called for a candle to light him up to bed,
Likewise for a handkerchief to tie around his head,
She tended to his needs like a young girl ought to do,
And then he said, 'Me dear, why don't you jump in with me too?'
She jumped into bed without the least alarm,
Thinking that the sailor lad would do to her no harm;
He cuddled her and kissed her the whole night long,
Until she wished that short night had been seven years long.
Early next morning the sailor he arose,
And into Mary's apron threw a handful of gold,
Saying, 'Take this, me dear, for the mischief I have done,
Last night I fear I've left you with a daughter or a son.'
'If it be a daughter send her out to nurse,
Put gold in her pocket and put silver in her purse,
But if it be a boy he shall wear the jacket blue
And go climbing up the rigging like his daddy used to do.'
So come all you young maidens, a warning take by me,
Never trust a sailor lad an inch above your knee,
For I trusted one and he beguiled me,
And left me with a pair o' twins to dangle on me knee.