The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry or The Grey Selkie of Suleskerry is a traditional folk song from Orkney. The song was collected by the American scholar, Francis James Child in the late nineteenth century and was published in 1886 as Child ballad number 113 in "The Child Ballads Vol 2"
Child Ballads - Narrative
Great Silkie of Sule Skerry, The [Child 113]
Francis James Child owed the belated recovery of this extraordinary ballad to his friend and co-worker William MacMath, who spotted it on page 86-89 in Vol 1 of the "Proceedings of the Scottish Society of Antiquaries" of 1852. Communicated by the late Captain F.W.L. Thomas, R.N.; written down by him from the dictation of a venerable lady of Snarra Voe, Shetland.
Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland: Volumes
See also: Hibbert's "Description of the Shetland Islands" (1822) (pp. 566-571)
There are many different versions of the song, one of which is a part of the epic ballad, "The Lady Odivere".
mudcat.org: Lyr Add: The Lady Odivere
The Sule Skerry is a rock in the Atlantic about fifty miles southwest of Orkney. Within living memory it was frequented by large numbers of seals. Some of the verses of the ballad are still remembered in the islands of Orkney and Shetland, but the tune was very nearly lost. It was first noted down in 1938 by Dr. Otto Anderson, who heard it sung by John Sinclair on the island of Flotta, Orkney.
Dr Andersson said, “I had no idea at the time that I was the first person to write down the tune. The pure pentatonic form of it and the beautiful melodic line showed me that it was a very ancient melody that I had set on paper.”
Svenska - Uppslagsverket Finland
A full version of the words was sent to Dr Andersson by Miss Annie G. Gilchrist.
First published in 1947 on page 115 of the Budkavlen magazine #XXVI.
Reprinted on page 39 of the Budkavlen magazine #XXXIII, with a slightly different text, taken from an Orkney newspaper: The Orcadian June 11, 1934
In 1955 John Sinclair of Flotta, Orkney Islands, sang "The Grey Silkie" in a BBC recording made by Sean Davies on the anthology "Sailormen and Servingmaids - The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 6"( Caedmon 1961; Topic 1970). The album's booklet lists the date of recording erroneously as June 1964, three years after the album was released.
The Great Silkie of Sules Skerry (Roud 197; Child 113)
Recorded in the Orkneys, July 1955.
(c) Paul Clayton (1956) (as "Silkie of Sule Skerry")
Folk Ballads of the English-Speaking World - Smithsonian Folkways
From the liner-notes of Paul Clayton's album:
SIDE I, Band 6: THE GREAT SILKIE OF SULE SKERRY (Child #113) (Ballads of the Supernatural - see pages 27 to 30 ) The inhabitants of the Orkney Islands and the Hebrides tell numerous tales of the "silkies" or seal-folk. These enchanted creatures dwell in the depth of the sea but occasionally doff their sealskins and come upon land where they pass as ordinary men. Upon such occasions they are said to accept human partners (as in this ballad) and it is for this reason that many families in the islands trace their ancestry to "silkies". The silkies share in common with other enchanted folk the ability to forecast future events (see stanzas 12 and 13 in which the silkie foretells the marriage of the maid to a hunter who will shoot both the great silkie and his offspring). Except for some slight dialect changes, the version sung here by Paul Clayton is essentially that reported by R. M. Fergusson in Rambling Sketches in the Far North, 1883, page 140;
The tune was collected in Orkney by Professor Otto Andersson of Helsinki.
(c) Cynthia Gooding (1957) (as "Great Selchie of Shule Skerry")
Cynthia Gooding - Faithful Lovers And Other Phenomena (Vinyl, LP, Album) at Discogs
In 1954 a new tune was written for this traditional song by Dr. James Waters of Columbia University in 1954.
Child was interested only in the texts of the ballads he collected, and Jim Butler explains that the Waters tune was "just the best I could do as a way to get a fine ballad sung".
Over the next 2 years, Butler introduced the ballad to the Boston area at a time when "hootnannies" filled the Great Court of MIT on a weekly basis (before recorded folk songs were widely available).
Jim Butler added the song to his repertoire, according to his notes, in October 1954, on a page labelled "MITOC Supp.", being the MIT Outing Club addition to his typewritten Child Ballads.
Jim Butler taught the song to several people, including Bonnie Dobson. This is the tune that Joan Baez popularized as "Silkie" in the early 1960s.
(c) Bonnie Dobson (1960) (as "The Silkie of Sule Skerry")
Vinyl Album - Bonnie Dobson - Sings She's Like A Swallow And Other Folk Songs - Prestige International - USA
Bonnie Dobson - She's Like A Swallow And Other Folk Songs (Vinyl, LP, Album) at Discogs
(c) Oscar Brand (1960) (as "Great Selchie of Shule Skerry")
Various - Newport Folk Festival, 1960 (Vinyl, LP) at Discogs
(c) Joan Baez (1961) (as "Silkie")
Vinyl Album - Joan Baez - Joan Baez Vol 2 - Vanguard - UK
Joan Baez - Joan Baez, Vol. 2 (Vinyl, LP, Album) at Discogs
(c) The Highwaymen (1962) (as "The Great Silkie")
Vinyl Album - The Highwaymen - Standing Room Only! - United Artists - USA
(c) Judy Collins (1962) (as "Great Selchie of Shule Skerry")
Vinyl Album - Judy Collins - Golden Apples Of The Sun - Elektra - USA
Judy Collins - Golden Apples Of The Sun (Vinyl, LP) at Discogs
(c) The Homesteaders (1962) (as "The Silkie")
The Homesteaders - Railroad Bill (Vinyl, LP) at Discogs
Vinyl Album - The Homesteaders - Railroad Bill - Riverside - USA
Richard L. Hess Web Pages - Judy Collins Early Recordings
(c) The Halifaxx Three (1963) (as "The Great Silky")
The Halifax Three - The San Francisco Bay Blues And The Rest Of Our Best (Vinyl, LP, Album) at Discogs
(c) The Big 3 (1964) (as "Silkie")
Vinyl Album - The Big Three (USA) - Live At The Recording Studio - FM [USA] - USA
The Big 3 - Live At The Recording Studio (Vinyl, LP, Album) at Discogs
(c) Gram Parsons (1964) (as "The Great Silkie")
Unreleased solo performance.
CD Album - Gram Parsons - The Early Years Vol. 1 & 2 - Sierra - USA
Listen to a sample here: The Early Years, Vols. 1 & 2 - Gram Parsons
(c) John Denver (1968) (as "The Great Silkie")
Vinyl Album - Various Artists - Something To Sing About! - MOS - USA
Various - Something To Sing About! (Vinyl, LP) at Discogs
(c) Trees (1970) (as "The Great Silkie")
Vinyl Album - Trees - The Garden Of Jane Delawney - CBS - UK
Trees (3) - The Garden Of Jane Delawney (Vinyl, LP, Album) at Discogs
Vinyl Album - The Corries - Live At The Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh - Columbia - UK
(c) Jean Redpath (1975) (as "The Grey Silkie")
Jean Redpath - Jean Redpath (Vinyl, LP, Album) at Discogs
(c) Maddy Prior (1999) (as "Great Silkie of Sules Skerry")
Maddy Prior: Ravenchild
Maddy Prior - Ravenchild (CD, Album) at Discogs
(c) Eyeless In Gaza (2000) (as "The Silkie")
Eyeless In Gaza - Song Of The Beautiful Wanton (CD, Album) at Discogs
(c) Roger McGuinn (2007) (as "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry")
Roger McGuinn's Folk Den » Blog Archive » The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry
Listen here: ibiblio.org/jimmy/folkden/php/music/Great_Silkie.mp3
(c) Steeleye Span (2009) (as "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry")
Steeleye Span - Cogs, Wheels And Lovers (CD, Album) at Discogs
(c) June Tabor (2011) (as "The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry")
June Tabor - Ashore (CD, Album) at Discogs
(c) Angelo Branduardi (2013) (as "The Silkie")
Angelo Branduardi - Il Rovo E La Rosa (CD, Album) at Discogs
In 1981 Angelo Branduardi has recorded this tune, with other lyrics written by Esenin, in his album Branduardi '81. The song is titled "La cagna" (SEE FURTHER ON IN THIS POST)
American folksinger Pete Seeger set the poem "I Come and Stand at Every Door", originally written as "Kız Çocuğu" in 1956 by Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, to the 1954 James Waters tune of "The Great Silkie".
According to Seeger, Jeanette Turner did a loose English "singable translation" of the poem under a different title, "I Come And Stand At Every Door", and sent a note to Seeger asking "Do you think you could make a tune for it?" in the late 1950s. After a week of trial and failure, this English translation was used by Seeger in 1962 with an adaptation of "an extraordinary melody put together by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology student James Waters, who had put a new tune to a mystical ballad "The Great Silkie" which he couldn't get out of his head, without permission."
The Originals © by Arnold Rypens - I COME AND STAND AT EVERY DOOR
(c) Pete Seeger (1962) (as "I Come and Stand at Every Door")
The American rock band The Byrds sang it on their third album, Fifth dimension (1966).
The song was covered in 1991 by This Mortal Coil. on their album "Blood".
Joan Baez also sang "Kız Çocuğu" with its original Turkish lyrics by Nazım Hikmet to a different tune.
The Breton folk band Tri Yann also penned an adaptation in French called "Le Dauphin" (the dolphin) on their 1972 album Tri Yann an Naoned.
In 1981 Angelo Branduardi recorded this tune in his album Branduardi '81, with lyrics by Esenin. The song is titled "La cagna".