Vaughan Williams, an inveterate collector of folk songs throughout much of his career, would periodically use their themes in his compositions or arrange them in various performing versions. While he often fashioned renditions for solo voice, he typically arranged them for unaccompanied chorus, as was the case with the five folk songs comprising this collection.
The first one, "The Dark-Eyed Sailor," is an arrangement of a Scottish ballad. Vaughan Williams deftly conveys the beauty of the popular melody in his colorful two-part writing here, capturing also the charm of the text, about a young lady who is reunited with her "dark-eyed sailor." For the second song, "The Springtime of the Year," Vaughan Williams used the first two verses of a popular ballad entitled "Lovely on the Water." The text could well serve as a sort of sequel to the opening song (as could most of the others in the set), as it tells of a sailor and his lady singing together in their courting activities. The song begins with an ethereal wordless introduction, the chorus intoning the syllable "ah." The text then begins with, "As I walked out one morning/In the springtime of the year." Vaughan Williams, again, treats the lovely melody with simple yet deftly-crafted vocal writing.
The third song, "Just as the Tide Was Flowing," again deals with a sailor finding his love. It is a vigorous, bright song, the two-part writing quite simple but full of color. This and the fifth item in the set, "Wassail Song," are the liveliest of the five. The fourth item here, "The Lover's Ghost," is an arrangement of a folk song known by several names: "The Suffolk Miracle," "The Drowsy Sleeper," and "The Grey Cock." Again, the text tells of a sailor and his love, but the slow (Lento, ma non troppo) tempo imparts a somber mood to the lovely music, quite appropriate to the wistful, tender melody.
The last entry here, the aforementioned "Wassail Song," is a light, drinking song, whose cheer and charm combine to make a fine finale to the set. Gone from the text is talk of the sea and sailors and love. Wassail is a greeting, once commonly used in England, to wish good health, especially at social occasions over a drink. The choral writing here is gossamer in its subtle shifts, from the gliding sostenuto intonations of the eponymous "wassail" to the contrasting rapid rhythmic singing that propels the joyous spirit of the song.