You have to have a particular kind of hubris to attempt a rewrite of an iconic traditional folk song like ‘Sir Patrick Spens’, I guess – especially with the ghosts of all who have done it before peering over your shoulder!
There are several older versions of the song in the Child Ballad collection here. Mainly Norfolk has a recording history of the song and a number of later adaptations of the lyrics, including what I think is one of the two best modern versions, by Martin Carthy. The other really excellent modern version is by Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer, with a tune which I think is their own creation; you can watch them perform it here.
My rewrite owes a lot to Carthy’s wordings, although I have drastically shortened it and changed the story at a couple of points. I’m still working on a tune for it, but it will work well with Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer’s tune. Here’s my first draft.
The king sat in Dunfermline town,
Drinking the blood-red wine
He said, “I need a mariner
To sail this ship of mine.
So send word for Sir Patrick Spens
To come at my command
For he’s the finest mariner
who ever sailed from land”.
When Patrick heard the King’s good word
His face turned grey with fear
“To Norway far we cannot sail,
It’s too late in the year”.
“To Norway you must go for me”
The King gave this decree,
“For you must go to meet my bride
and bring her home to me”.
“Prepare the ship”, Sir Patrick cried,
“We sail all in the morn,
through sun or sleet, through hail or wind,
through fair or deadly storm”.
But up and spoke an old ship’s hand,
“I fear we’ll come to harm
For/I saw the new moon late last night,
The old moon in her arm.”
They had not sailed a day or two,
I’m sure it was not three,
When all around the sky grew dark
And roared the raging sea.
Then Patrick stood on the quarterdeck
And took the helm in hand,
While/the lookout climbed the masthead tall
And tried to find the land.
“Oh make me a web of good sailcloth,
Another web of twine,
And lay them round our good ship’s side
Let not the sea come in”.
So they got a web of good sailcloth,
Another web of twine,
And laid them round the good ship’s side,
But still the sea came in.
Oh the rigging snapped, the topmast cracked,
the spars came crashing down,
And the raging seas swept o’er the ship
and whirled it all around
And the gale blew hard from north north east
So loudly did it sweep,
As Patrick Spens and all his men
Were drowning in the deep.
And long, long the King will sit
His sceptre in his hand
Before he sees Sir Patrick Spens
Come sailing back to land.
It’s east by north from Aberdeen
The good ship they must seek,
For/there lies Sir Patrick Spens,
Fifty fathoms deep.