The Leaving of Liverpool is a traditional folk song which tells the story of a sailor who must leave his town and his true love behind while he goes off to earn his living on a long voyage at sea.
From the moment he leaves his only concern is to return to her as soon as possible.
Bob Dylan borrowed heavily from The Leaving of Liverpool when he wrote one of his first songs, called simply, Farewell.
The song is also often referred to as Fare Thee Well, My Own True Love, which is the first line of the chorus.
Like many folk songs, The Leaving of Liverpool has developed several versions and variations since it was first discovered and published in the late 19th century.
The first known reference to the song came from an American seaman called Richard Maitland. He heard it being sung on a ship called the General Knox in 1885. Maitland later recalled: “I was on deck one night when I heard a Liverpool man singing it …yes sir, that song hit the spot.”
The song went on to hit the spot with listeners all across the world.
It became more widely known after Maitland passed the song on to William Main Doerflinger, a folk music enthusiast from New York who specialised in collecting sea songs and shanties. Doerflinger published The Leaving of Liverpool in his book, Songs of the Sailor and Lumberman.
The song was quickly picked up by a wider range of singers and soon, versions started to appear on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Doerflinger version begins with the line, Fare you well the Prince’s landing stage, and this is still the most popular opening to the song today.
However, many versions ignore this verse and get straight to the love element with the line, Farewell to you my own true love. While this line works very well, it is a later addition and is not found in the original version.
The Prince’s landing stage was the name of the platform used by people embarking on ships in Liverpool, often because they were emigrating.
Many of those emigrants had come across from Ireland to board ships sailing to America. Liverpool was a major port in the 19th century and was able to offer more US destinations than were available at many Irish ports.
Trains ran all the way to the platform to make embarkation quicker and easier.
The song gives a brief glimpse of the hardship sailors and their families had to endure by long separation.
Journeys were long in those days and perilous, especially when passing “stormy Cape Horn”. Sailors could be away from home for several months, even years. The life was hard and the treatment could often be harsh.
The only thing that kept many sailors going was the thought of returning to the lovers they left behind.
The reference in The Leaving of Liverpool to the Davy Crockett ship with Burgess as its captain gives some insight into the hardship endured by sailors.
The ship is referred to as a floating hell. Life would be particularly tough for unemployed young who were forced to go to sea because they had no chance of finding jobs at home on land.
Not all of them were suited to a life at sea, which added to the hardship. As the song lyric suggests in reference to life on board Burgess’s ship: “If a man’s a sailor he will get along but if not then he’s sure in hell.”
The Leaving of Liverpool has now become a standard on the folk circuit. It’s been covered by numerous top performers including The Dubliners and The Clancys and Tommy Makem. It was also hit in the UK in the 1960s for the ballad group The Spinners.
More recently it has been recorded a new generation of performers including Gaelic Storm, The Pogues and The Young Dubliners.