One of the pleasures of this project is learning the background of songs I’ve known all my life. For example, I’ve known “The Eddystone Light” since I was a kid, but knew nothing about the Eddystone Lighthouse, though it turns out to be the most famous lighthouse in the British Isles. Inaugurated in 1698, it was the first offshore lighthouse ever constructed, though the original structure lasted barely two years and there have been three others there since.
As for the song, it seems to have originated in a considerably longer version as “The Man at the Nore” — the Nore was a lightship, which was an alternative to building offshore lighthouses. Apparently “The Man at the Nore” was quite a hit in mid-19th century British music halls, sung, according to contemporary sheet music, “by Arthur Lloyd, with rapturous applause.” Lloyd was a specialist in comic songs and one of the biggest stars of the early music hall, and there is a voluminous site about him online. I also found a nice broadside of “The Man at the Nore,” which begins with the same verse as the later “Eddystone Light,” but extends the story at considerably greater length.
A shortened American version, titled “The Eddystone Light” and similar to the one I sing, though with a somewhat different story and chorus, was already turning up in university songbooks by the late 1800s. College singing sessions were an important though rarely-mentioned influence on the later folk revival. Carl Sandburg’s American Songbag, one of the prime sources for mid-century folksingers, was largely compiled from musical get-togethers with students and professors, and that material was tailor-made for collegiate folk groups like the Kingston Trio, Brothers Four, and their ilk.
All of which said, the version everybody has sung since the 1950s came from the Weavers and Burl Ives — I’m not sure who did it first, but being from a good left-wing household I grew up on the Weavers recording.
I sing this in honor of my ex-half-sister-in-law, Hazel, who will be mentioned frequently in later posts and who regularly requested it.