> Cyril Tawney > Songs > The Ballad of Sammy’s Bar (The Last Boat’s A-Leaving)

The Ballad of Sammy’s Bar (The Last Boat’s A-Leaving)

[ Roud - ; DT SAMMYBAR ; Mudcat 32237 , 57504 ; Cyril Tawney]

The Ballad of Sammy’s Bar is one of Cyril Tawney’s best-known songs. His first known recording of it, made by Peter Kennedy at Cecil Sharp House, London, was included with the title The Last Boat’s A-Leaving on the 1960 HMV album Rocket Along: New Ballads on Old Lines. He recorded it again in 1966 for the Elektra album A Cold Wind Blows and in 1972 for his Argo LP In Port. It is also on his Neptune cassette Sally Free and Easy (1989, reissued in 2003 on his Ada CD Navy Cuts). He also sang Sammy’s Bar live at the Holsteins folk club in Chicago on 31 May 1981. This concert was published in 2007 on his CD Live at Holsteins.

Cyril Tawney wrote on his now defunct own website about his song:

Back in the early 50s two young amateur film makers, I can’t remember their names, decided to make a short documentary about sailing on the Norfolk Broads. They called it Ha’penny Breeze. The only thing the film lacked was music, but instead of simply dubbing some out-of-copyright recorded piece on to the soundtrack, they had the temerity to approach the man who was probably the leading writer of film music in Britain at the time, Philip Green, and ask him if he could write and record something original, but of course for very little reimbursement. Their cheek paid off, and Phil Green wrote a charming piece called after the film title Ha’penny Breeze. His generosity was rewarded in a way, because the recording got plenty of broadcasts, and that was how I came to hear it. I immediately went out and bought the record. The theme itself was played on a solo concertina. Years later I was to discover that the concertina was played by the renowned Alf Edwards, who became a broadcasting colleague of mine in the 60s and 70s. There’s a general atmosphere of Shenandoah about Ha’penny Breeze, and both pieces were very much in my mind when I came to write Sammy’s Bar in 1958. The full original title, by the way, was The Ballad of Sammy’s Bar, though in EFDSS circles it is known to this day as The Last Boat’s A-Leaving, which was never my title.

Sammy’s Bar was one of a bundle of songs concerning unrequited love which I wrote around that time. For me and several of my fellow-submariners in Malta in the mid-50s love hadn’t been too kind, and in this particular song I thought we’d all feel a lot better if I had the girl killed off in a car crash. Although I didn’t write it until I was back in the UK, the scene was set in Malta and centred around a popular submariners’ rendezvous actually called The Old Bar but always known as Sammy’s Bar, after the proprietor. Sammy sold a very cheap and nameless rough, white wine, which you could call the Mediterranean’s answer to English farmyard scrumpy. It was sold in fivepenny or tenpenny measures, and even with hardened drinkers it was customary to dilute it with lemonade.

The reason it was so popular with submariners was its nearness to the Submarine Depot ship, HMS “Forth”, tied alongside in Msida Creek. Sailors were paid fortnightly, so finances were usually rather thin during the second week. If you didn’t have enough cash for a full-blown run ashore you could always nip round to Pieta Creek, quaff three ‘tenpenny Sammy’s’, as they were called, and return to the ship quite mellow for a total outlay of half-a-crown.

The bar was little more than a hole in the wall, more like a little cave than a bar, and a couple of dozen people would fill it. It also had good acoustics so it wasn’t long before I found my way in there with my guitar. I sounded like Paul Robeson. It had also been patronised by Royalty when Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip were stationed in Malta a few years earlier, so it had become an ‘in’ place for the ‘top people’ to go slumming. Diplomats’ ladies could be found sitting shoulder to shoulder with stokers’ wives and getting on famously. Sammy’s was indeed a unique place, but, alas, it’s no longer there.

The Ballad of Sammy’s Bar was deliberately written in shanty form, of the type that has a two-line refrain spliced into two-line stanzas. To appreciate the predicament of the fellow in the song, you need to know the importance of the car hire business in Malta at the time. The buses were grubby bone-shakers, and you wouldn’t impress a girl by taking her on one of those—besides which, buses would only take you to the popular overcrowded beaches. To get to the more secluded parts of the island a car was essential. If you had the money you could hire some marvellous cars, real American limousines with electrically controlled windows and so on, but these were generally beyond the means of an ordinary matelot. The basic situation in the song, then, is that two lads are after the same girl, but one of them earns more money than the other and can afford to hire a ‘Yankee car’. Many people have mistakenly assumed that one of the rivals is an American and the other British, but that isn’t the case—they’re both British.

As a young man about this time I got it fixed in my head that all girls were fundamentally gold-diggers. It was easy to get that impression in Malta, because available men outnumbered the Wrens by a colossal proportion, with the result that a large number of these hoity-toity young ladies wouldn’t be seen dead with anything other than an officer, even though they themselves were, and were likely to remain, non-commissioned. Some of them were in for a nasty shock when they got back to UK, but others by then had secured wardroom husbands. Snakes and Ladders wasn’t in it folks! Also some of the lads in the fore-ends of my submarine who were looking for pen friends made contact with some nurses in a hospital back in England. In order to establish a pairing-up of the sexes they sent the girls a sheet of paper for them not only to write down their names but also the type of lad they’d like to correspond with. Their response was pinned up on the notice board, and it served only to reinforce my notion about girls. So many of them had made it clear that they were only interested in gold braid (they didn’t realise that officers weren’t even on offer) with entries like “The Boss!!”, “Whoever’s in charge” and “Any handsome young officer will do!” I can see now that I took it all far too seriously, and I’ve since had ample personal evidence that there are indeed women who are prepared to endure protracted penury for their chosen man (the lyrics of She’s Funny That Way say it all), but at the time I felt that even the obviously jokey tone of those nurses’ remarks revealed an underlying serious preference for the well-heeled man.

The girl in the song is more interested in impressing her friends than in making a comparative assessment of the young men’s qualities.

The car crash actually happened to me, not to any girl friend, and it was a ‘Yankee car’. It wasn’t hired, it belonged to a US Navy friend stationed at an airbase. The accident wasn’t serious, no-one was injured, but it was my first car crash and it made a long-lasting impression on me. It was still on my mind when Sammy’s Bar came to be written, hence the woman comes to a tragic end in that fashion.

There are two features in this song which I used again in later songs. One was the completely artificial term ‘real love’, an invention of my own, for no other reason than that ‘true love’ was so overworked that I couldn’t bring myself to use it. You’ll find it again in The Grey Funnel Line. It never caught on with other songwriters or poets and, as far as I know, it hasn’t entered the English language.

The other feature was that of a concluding scene where the thwarted ‘loser’, being in possession of more than his customary amount of money through the process of getting the girl, in this case by going on the wagon for a fortnight in order to hire a Yankee car, is now seated in a bar spending it on drink. I used this again in the ‘civilian’ song New Names for Old. The two-line refrain, “Hey the last boat’s a-leaving / Call away the di‑so” [phonetic spelling of Maltese ‘dgħajsa’, ‘boat’], is actually linked to this last scene. In addition to the official liberty boats provided by the Navy to ferry sailors back to their ship, it was also permissible to use the numerous di‑sos, a Maltese equivalent of a gondola. The liberty boats were free, but of course you had to pay for the di‑sos. If you missed the last liberty boat you had to hail a di‑so (they were available all night) and that’s what is happening in the song. His shipmates are calling to him that the last liberty boat is about to leave, and he’s replying that he prefers to carry on drowning his sorrows and return to the ship by di‑so. This refrain has been corrupted down the years by imperfect hearing, so that we get “the last boats are leaving” and “haul away the di‑so”, both of which statements you will now recognise as being absurdities.

Al O’Donnell recorded Sammy’s Bar in 1967 for a single on the Irish Tribune label. Both songs from this single were included a year later on the Tribune compilation album Ballads for Drinking and the Crack. He also sang Sammy’s Bar on his 2008 CD Ramble Away, both in a studio and in a live recording.

Tara sang Sammy’s Bar on their ca. 1977 album of “Irish Music”, Rigs of the Time.

Martin Simpson sang Sammy’s Bar in 2001 on his Topic CD The Bramble Briar and on his 2009 DVD Prodigal Son: The Concert. He noted:

[…] A more modern sailor’s story is Sammy’s Bar, which was written by Cyril Tawney. I learned it as a child and re-learned it from my wife, Jessica. An exquisite short story set in Malta, it says much about Europe’s relationship with the USA, even now.

Sherburn, Bartley & Scott’s Last Night’s Fun sang Sammy’s Bar in 2004 on their CD Tempered. and Sherburn Bartley Sanders returned to it in 2018 on their album Beguile. They noted:

Cyril originally recorded this in 1960 and then again in 1966. It is a song of unrequited love set in Malta, with two rivals after the heart of one woman. Cyril was actually based in Malta in the 1950’s where he served as a Submariner and Sammy’s Bar was somewhere he frequented often. Denny [Bartley] originally learnt this song from the singing of Martin Simpson.

This video shows Brian Withstanley singing Sammy’s Bar at a RNLI lifeboat charity concert at the Dungeness Lifeboat Station on 19 May 2012:

And this video shows Tim Jones & The Dark Lanterns live in The Convent Club Chapel in 2014:


Cyril Tawney sings The Ballad of Sammy’s Bar

I went down to Sammy’s Bar
    Hey, the last boat’s a-leaving
By the shore at Pieta
    Call away the di-so

And my real love, she was there
There was sand all in her hair

How did sand get in your hair
Darling Johnny put it there

Been with Johnny all the day
Down at Ghajn Tuffheija Bay

He’s a better man by far
Because he’s got a Yankee car

I went out from Sammy’s Bar
Had to hire a Yankee car

Fourteen days I drank no wine
Saving for that love of mine

Then one day in Paula square
At a paper I did stare

Johnny tried a hairpin bend
For my love, it was the end

Going back to Sammy’s Bar
I don’t need no Yankee car