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Davy Lowston – A New Zealand folk song

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It’s a chilling story from New Zealand’s past – one that has passed down through two centuries and still carries a wind-torn melancholy that fascinates those who hear it. A group of sealers set down on a remote island off the coast of New Zealand, only to be stranded for four years when the ship consigned to pick them up sinks and they are forgotten about.

This is the true story behind Davy Lowston; one of New Zealand’s oldest and most haunting songs.

Having learned the guitar chords for this song for the recent gig in Naseby at the Bards Ballads and Bulldust festival, I decided to learn the lyrics and incorporate it into my set. I soon discovered there are several versions to the words, so I chose the ones I liked best and then added a verse or two of my own, as I felt there were some flaws in the storytelling of the original that could be improved with some embellishment…

Is this acceptable? I’m not really sure it matters – some quick research at the NZ Folk Song site revealed that the song in its original form took quite a few liberties with the truth and so I didn’t feel it was wrong to add a few verses, especially since they in no way changed the essence of the story.

Here’s what really happened: in 1809 a group of sealers under the leadership of David Lowrieston were set down on the Open Bay Islands off the coast of Haast by the ship Active. The ship returned to Sydney  leaving promises to return, but disappeared, believed sunk in a gale.

The men soon ran out of supplies and were forced to subsist on seal and bird meat, along with such edible roots as they were able to gather. During the four years they were marooned they tried to reach help at least once, by building a boat and sailing for the mainland, then attempting to climb across the mountains to the East coast. However in a weakened state, their efforts came to nothing and they were forced to return to their dismal island prison.

Hugh Best - Open Bay Islands

The fortuitous arrival of the ship Governor Bligh in 1813 must have seemed like a miracle to these wretched men, who were returned to Sydney where their story doubtlessly attracted plenty of attention. Among those taking an interest in the tale was a songwriter or poet who constructed the handful of verses that make up the song Davy Lowrieston.

The original song describes the death of a number of the sealers, which is not know to have happened. No doubt it made the song more dramatic and appealing to an audience hungry for a gripping yarn and may have contributed to its enduring popularity.

According to research done by Frank Fyffe in 1970, the song seems to have become popular the among sea-faring folk who frequented Australian and New Zealand ports at the time – whalers, sealers and merchants who probably carried it around the world with them.

The song would quite probably have been lost to history were it not for a whaleman in the 1830’s who took a collection of songs back to America, where they passed into the hands of his daughter. The American song collector and composer John Leebrick came upon these songs and resurrected them in his collection of sea shanties. The song was collected by Neil Colquhoun who along with people like Phil Garland was leading the push to dig out and archive New Zealand’s musical heritage during the folk revival of the 1960’s and 70’s.

Davy Lowston has since been memorably performed by British folk music legend Martin Carthy, among others.

New Zealand’s folk music heritage is woefully slim – unlike Australia and America, the old traditional songs were rarely gathered and archived and it was left to people like Phil and others who have done a huge service to New Zealand by collecting these songs and bringing them to a modern audience. It’s a real thrill to stand in front of an audience and present a song that is over two centuries old and comes from New Zealand’s own rich historical heritage.

I plan to do some more research into this song and its history…I’ll keep you posted as I dig information up.


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