Listening to Britten – Sailor-boy

Sea Piece by Alfred Stannard. Photo (c) Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service (Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery)

Sailor-boy (Folksong Arrangements, Volume 6 no.2 (England)) – folksong arrangement (Appalachian) for high voice and guitar (pre 17 June 1958, Britten aged 44)

Dedication not known
Text Traditional (Appalachian Mountains)
Language English
Duration 2′

Audio clip (with thanks to Hyperion)
Sailor-boy (Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Craig Ogden (guitar))

Background and Critical Reception

Sailor-boy is another folksong initially collected by Cecil Sharp, and is taken from his Seventeen Nursery Songs from the Appalachian Mountains. It is another addition to the growing canon of Britten settings for Peter Pears and Julian Bream to perform.

Writing about the song for Hyperion’s release of Britten’s compelte folk song settings, Lewis Foreman praises the guitar accompaniment as ‘totally idiomatically conceived for the instrument’, and notes the ‘intoxicating dancing’ it offers.


Inevitably, given the words ‘we go walking on the green grass’, there is a strong sense of the outdoors to this song. This is only enhanced by Britten’s use of the guitar, which gives a crisp strum at important musical junctions, before providing some syncopated counterpoint of its own.

The guitarist is absolutely key to a successful performance of this song – which may sound rather obvious, but they are completely responsible for setting the tone and determining the nature of Britten’s dance. If those conditions are satisifed this is as enjoyable as the walk on green grass that Britten portrays.

Recordings used

Robert Tear (tenor), Timothy Walker (guitar) (EMI)
Philip Langridge (tenor), Carlos Bonell (guitar) (Naxos)
Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Craig Ogden (guitar) (Hyperion)
Ian Partridge (tenor), Jukka Savijoki (guitar) (Ondine)

Carlos Bonell plays wonderfully for Philip Langridge, lending an improvised air to proceedings but producing a sharp snap for the chords. Craig Ogden plays a little more softly for Jamie MacDougall, whose voice is closer to that of Pears in fullness. Meanwhile Robert Tear and Timothy Walker are an excellent match, dancing through the green grass together, and Ian Partridge may be a little more restrained but he is beautifully controlled.


Philip Langridge and Carlos Bonell are here, while Ian Partridge and Jukka Savijoki can be found here, part of a very interesting collection of Britten and Berkeley music for voice and guitar. Robert Tear and Timothy Walker can be heard here

Also written in 1958: Thea Musgrave – String Quartet

Next up: Mister Kilby

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