> Frankie Armstrong > Songs > Tarry Trousers

Tarry Trousers

[ Roud 427 ; Master title: Tarry Trousers ; Ballad Index LoF014 ; VWML RVW2/2/69 , GG/1/16/993 ; Bodleian Roud 427 ; trad.]

Frankie Armstrong sang Tarry Trousers in 1972 on her LP Lovely on the Water. A.L. Lloyd commented:

Mother-daughter dialogues on amorous themes make a common form of folk song from China to Peru, and they’ve been on the go since the priestesses of antiquity sang their instructive hymns to the little temple harlots. The present version, however, is probably less than two hundred years old. It was well-known from Yorkshire to Somerset, its circulation stimulated partly through its appearance on broadsides published by Catnach and others, but also doubtless by virtue of its fond and striking image of the sailor’s trousers shining like diamonds in the young girl’s eyes. Dickens knew the song, and he makes Captain Cuttle sing a scrap of it in Dombey and Son. Frankie’s graceful tune is substantially the one sung to Vaughan Williams by Mrs. Humphreys of Ingrave, near Brentwood, Essex.

Tundra sang Tarry Trowsers in 1978 on their Sweet Folk and Country album A Kentish Garland.

Emily Portman and Lauren McCormick sang the English version of Tarry Trowsers, and Jody Stecher sang an American version of Tarry Trousers in 2005 on the Fellside anthology Songlinks 2: A Celebration of English Traditional Songs and Their American Variants. The set’s booklet commented on the English version:

“At the end of the 18th century, when most men wore knee breeches, sailors (apart from officers) wore trousers, and had been doing so for some fifty years. A sailor could easily roll up his wide trousers when the decks had to be scrubbed, or seas were breaking over them. The trousers (usually spelled ‘trowsers’ at the time) were often stained with the Stockholm tar used on the standing rigging, and ‘tarry trowsers’ were thus the unmistakable badge of the sailor.”
From Folk Songs Collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams, edited by Roy Palmer.

This version comes from the singing of Mr Jasper Bishop, 74, of the village of Priddy in Somerset, taken down by Cecil Sharp, 18 September 1905, and published in the Journal of The Folk Song Society No 17. Vol. IV, January 1913.

This popular song was sung by some of the most important of the English traditional singers, namely Mrs Harriet Verrall of Monksgate, Sussex, from whom Ralph Vaughan Williams noted the tune that he would later adapt to become one of the most popular of the English hymns, John Bunyan’s To Be a Pilgrim, and Mrs Russell, of Upway, Dorset, from whom the Hammond Brothers noted down one hundred songs. Frank Purslow noted in his book The Wanton Seed that Captain Cuttle sings half a verse of Tarry Trowsers in Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son, showing that it was a popular song of its time.

… and on the American version:

Tarry Trousers was collected by Cecil Sharp in Montvale, Virginia, on 4 June 1918 from Mrs Lawson Grey and Mrs Tina Dooley. Sharp wrote in his diary: “Had quite a concert, Mrs Tina Dooley, Mr Gray’s sister being there and singing rather well… I got some nice songs, and at 2.30 we walked back to Mailville Station in a shower, which though not very heavy, spoiled my new white umbrella!”

A version from the north-east is also printed in [Gale Huntington’s] Songs the Whalemen Sang, where the source is given as coming from the log of the Nauticon in 1848, proving that it was sung aboard ship.

In the States it is sometimes called As I walked Out One Pleasant Summer Morning; one was collected from Mrs Kit Williamson in Yellow Branch, Virginia, in 1933 by Juliet Fauntleroy.

Nick Dow sang Tarry Trousers in 1978 on his Dingle’s album Burd Margaret. He noted:

The young lady in this song pursues her lover into the Navy. She doesn’t bother to dress up as a sailor, but goes into battle dressed in her normal clothes!

Tom and Barbara Brown sang Tarry Trousers in 2008 on their WildGoose CD Beyond the Quay. They noted:

Barbara couldn’t remember her source for Tarry Trousers but a bit of digging revealed that she had it from the E.F.D.S. publication The Wanton Seed—a version collected by Gardiner from Mrs. [Charlotte] Hall of Axford, Basingstoke [VWML GG/1/16/993] . Quite how we acquired a guest appearance by Orfeo in the arrangement is a mystery—he somehow found himself a part, like he does! We like songs of strong-willed women. […]

Hazel Askew sang Mrs Charlotte Hall’s version of Tarry Trousers too: on the Askew Sisters’ and Craig; Morgan; Robson’ 2009 CD of songs collected by George Gardiner from five woman singers in Axford, Hampshire, in 1907, The Axford Five.

Pilgrims’ Way sang Tarry Trousers in 2010 on their eponymous debut EP, Pilgrims’ Way and in 2011 on their CD Wayside Courtesies. They noted:

A song from Frankie Armstrong, this feisty mother-daughter dialogue was once well-known, circulating as a broadside publication, and represents our second foray into transvestism. The tune is generally attributed to Mrs Humphreys of Ingrave, near Brentwood in Essex, as sung to Vaughan Williams, however we have speeded it up somewhat and added a bass line!

Tar-boat enthusiasts Tom and Edwin can testify that real tarry trousers are not remotely as effective in attracting the ladies as this song might suggest.

Liz Davenport sang Tarry Trousers in 2011 on her and Paul Davenport’s Hallamshire Traditions CD Spring Tide Rising. They commented:

Tar, the gaffer tape of the old time sailor, seems to acquire an additional lustre in this jolly little song. After threatening mayhem if anyone puts her lover in danger, the feisty heroine then admits to a rather strong fixation with her boyfriend’s nether regions. Declaring undying love based on the fact that his tarry trousers shine ‘like diamonds bright’. Hmm… maybe too much information, Miss!

Fay Hield sang Tarry Trousers in 2012 on her second solo CD, Orfeo. She noted:

A widely popular song, this was well-known from Yorkshire to Somerset, its circulation stimulated partly through its appearance on broadsides published by Catnach and others. It was even well known by Dickens—Captain Cuttle sings it in Dombey and Son (1846-8). I came across this version sung by Frankie Armstrong on her Lovely on the Water album (1972). Frankie took her tune from the one sung to Vaughan Williams by Mrs Humphreys of Ingrave, near Brentwood, Essex [VWML RVW2/2/69] . Mrs Humphreys’ version can be found on the EFDSS album A Century of Song (1998).

Paul Sartin sang Tarry Trousers on Balshazzar Feast’s 2012 CD Stocking Fillers. They noted:

This version is based on the singing of Mrs Powell of Minster, Kent, August 1910, collected by Francis Jekyll and George Butterworth, and Mrs Hall of Preston Candover, Hampshire, October 1907, collected by George Gardiner. Paul Sartin arranged this as part of a commission from Broadstairs Folk Week 2011. It’s an in-depth examination of the well-known moral integrity and virtuous chastity of the sailing fraternity—a case of naval gazing.

Belinda Kempster and Fran Foote sang Tarry Trousers on their 2019 CD On Clay Hill.

Anna Tam sang Tarry Trousers on her 2021 CD Anchoress. She noted:

Popular throughout England this song is mentioned in Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son and Broadside Ballads. This version (a little edited) was sung to Vaughan Williams in 1904 by Mrs Humphries. Tarry Trousers is also the theme tune for the YouTube series “Folk from the Boat”.


Frankie Armstrong sings Tarry Trousers

As I walked out one midsummer morning,
The weather being both fine and clear,
Who should I hear but a tender mother
Talking to her daughter dear.

“Daughter, I would have you marry
And live no longer a single life.”
But she says, “Mother, I’d rather tarry
For my sailor boy so bright.”

“But daughter, they are given to roaming,
Into foreign countries they do go,
And then they leave you broken hearted
And that will prove your overthrow.”

“I’ll dress my self in sailor’s clothing,
No foreign dangers will I fear.
And when we’re in the height of battle
Then I’ll protect my Jamie dear.

“Ah, the big guns they do rattle,
The small guns they do make their noise;
And when we’re in the height of battle
I’ll cry, Fight on, me jolly boys.

“My mother would have me wed a tailor
And rob me of my heart’s delight,
But give me the lad whose tarry trousers
Shine to me like diamonds bright.”

Emily Portman and Lauren McCormick sing Tarry Trowsers

As I walked out one midsummer’s morning
The morning being both fine and clear
Who should I spy but a tender mother
Talking to her daughter, daughter dear.

The mother said, “I would have you marry
And live no longer a single life.”
“Oh no,” said she, “I would sooner tarry
For my jolly sailor bright.

“I know you would have me wed with a farmer
And not give me my heart’s delight.
Give me the lad with the tarry trowsers,
Shines to me like diamonds, diamonds bright.”

“Oh, sailors they are given to roving
And to some foreign parts they go;
Then they’ll leave you broken-hearted
And they’ll prove your overthrow.”

“Oh, sailors they are men of honour
And do face their enemy
When thundering cannons roar and rattle
And the bullets they do fly.”

“Polly my dear, our anchor is weighing
And I am come to take my leave.
Although I leave you, my dearest jewel,
Charming Polly, do not grieve.”

“Oh Jamie dear, let me go with you,
Nor foreign danger will I fear.
When you are in the height of battle
I will attend on you, my dear.”

Hark, oh hark, how the great guns do rattle
And the small guns do make a noise.
When they are in the height of battle
She cries, “Fight on, my jolly, jolly boys!”

So come all you maidens, pray give attention
If a jolly sailor is your delight:
Never be forced to wed another
For all their gold and silver, silver bright.