This 16th century ballad tells the story of a "poor maiden," Mary who has been ill-used by her lover and is abandoned. One of the best-known traditional folksongs in Britain, which has been sung by generations of schoolchildren, little is known of it's origins though some scholars believe it might possibly be derived from an earlier song "The Forsaken Lover." A well-known early version is in Popular Music of the Olden Time (1855-1859) printed by William Chappell, in which he names "Early One Morning" as "one of the three most popular songs among the servant-maids of the present generation."
This folk song is particularly notable for its use in a number of well known arrangements. In the UK its usage in the opening bars of the "BBC Radio 4 UK Theme" by Fritz Spiegl, which until April 2006 was played every morning at 5.30 am is the best known.
The song has been used in a number of television programs. It was sung by Samantha in the TV series Bewitched, by Pernell Roberts (Adam Cartwright) in "The wooing of Abigail Jones" episode of the TV series Bonanza and was used as a trigger for the Vampire Spike in the seventh season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was also the theme song for the children's CBC TV show The Friendly Giant, which run from 1958 to 1985. In the UK, it was Frank Spencer's choice of song in the BBC sitcom Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em.
The song has also featured several times in the movies. In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, "Early One Morning" is played in the background at the beginning of the tale of Sir Launcelot, just before his assistant is 'mortally wounded' with an arrow. Also Hayley Mills and Nancy Olson sung this song in the 1960 Disney film Pollyanna.