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Tasmania, Davy Lowston and the Frère Jaques effect

Tasmania, Davy Lowston and the Frère Jaques effect

With a few days to spare before my gig in Adelaide I’ve headed over to Tasmania to visit some friends and escape the grind of Melbourne. Because in my mind, Hobart was a quaint and antiquated stone-walled little port town with not much more than a handful of fishing boats and a few souvenir shops. So I have to admit I was somewhat taken aback to find myself touching down in a sprawling, busy Australian city, complete with high rise buildings, malls and motorways.

oldest pub

Hobart was once a whaling and sealing port, the kind of place the heroes of the Davy Lowston song would have frequented, and so I was keen to visit the wharves and museums and see what remains from this time. Maybe those same sealers whose ordeal is told in the song once haunted the town’s foreshore, looking for work on one of the creaking vessels that lined the wharves, willing to forsake all trace of civilization for the dangers of the sea and the brutal life of sealing on remote shores far across the horizon.

This morning I spent half an hour on Skype talking Davy Lowston with Warren Fahey, who is perhaps Australia’s foremost collector of old songs. There is so much about this song that is wrapped in mystery – its origins, its antiquity, its author. It is a wraith of a song, which to me what makes it so appealing.

The tune of Davy Lowston has its origins on the on London’s Execution Dock, where the alleged pirate William Kidd was hanged in 1701. In those days, vendors made a penny selling “broadsides” – single-sided printed sheets of paper bearing songs detailing the goings-on of the day. They would stand on the street corners and sing the songs as a means of attracting buyers. One of these broadsides captured the plight of the condemned privateer, which later became the well-known folk song Captain Kidd:

My name is Captain Kidd
As I sailed, as I sailed,
Oh my name is Captain Kidd as I sailed,
My name is Captain Kidd
And God’s laws I did forbid,
And most wickedly I did as I sailed.

Another song that appeared around the same time was “Sam Hall,”  which uses the same tune and tells the story of an unrepentent murderer as he makes his way to the gallows. (This song was recorded by Johnny Cash.) The tune and meter of Davy Lowston is almost certainly a plagiary of one or both these songs. Both “Captain Kidd” and “Sam Hall” would have been on the lips of sailors for more than a century before the composition of Davy Lowston, so it’s likely whoever authored Davy Lowston simply grafted their words onto this old melody and rhyme scheme.

I caught the bus into the city this afternoon. An Indian woman and her young daughter got on at the same time as me and as we travelled through Hobart’s streets the little girl starting singing the nursery rhyme “Where is Thumbkin;” which I remembered well from my own childhood;

Where is Thumbkin?
Where is Thumbkin?
Here I am!
Here I am!

How are you today, sir?
Very well, I thank you.
Run away.  
Run away.

The song, with its simple, repetitive melody is sung to the famous old french tune, Frère Jaques;

Frère Jacques, frère Jacques,
Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous?
Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines!
Ding, dang, dong. Ding, dang, dong.

Frère Jaques was first published about 1811, around the same time as Davy Lowston may have been composed. It has been theorized that it was originally composed to taunt Jews or Protestants. Since then, the melody has become ingrained in the cultures of many countries around the world, including China and India, with different lyrics being retro-fitted in many languages to suit many purposes. It has been used by gloating football fans  and patriotic Chinese communists; by the Beatles and the British military, and of course by mothers and children all over the world, including a 4 year old Indian girl on the number 39 bus into Hobart on this overcast Tasmanian afternoon. The process by which a song can travel through the centuries and around the world like this, morphing and changing as it does so, is the real subject of my inquiry into Davy Lowston.

P1000223I finally made it down to the wharves, where a handful of crayfish boats were tying up for the day. The fishermen here still use wooden cray-pots constructed from sapling branches, identical to those a century old you can find in the Tasmanian Maritime museum across the road. I got talking to one of the fishermen – he reckoned the crayfish are better attracted to the natural materials. When he saw me taking photos he rummaged around amongst the pots on the deck of his boat and pulled out this little bird – which he said they call a “Jesus bird” on account of its ability to “walk” on water. They often land on the decks of these boats and nestle down in the pots. I’m not sure what the species is – anyone?

jesus bird

On the trail of Davy Lowston: Neil Colquhoun

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Yesterday I borrowed a car and hit the motorway north of Auckland to visit Neil Colquhoun and his wife Barbie – the first foray into my film documenting the story of Davy Lowston. Neil is a former music teacher and composer and was one of the principle figures in the New Zealand folk revival. In the 1950’s and 60’s he was part of the Song Spinners, one of the first groups to bring old New Zealand folk songs back to life in the modern era. His book “Songs of a Young Country,” is one of the definitive collections of old New Zealand folk songs. It was Neil who returned Davy Lowston to New Zealand after locating it in the hands of an American song collector.

Neil Colquhoun at his home near Warkworth

Neil Colquhoun at his home near Warkworth

Earlier in the day I had spoken on the phone to Michael Brown, who has previously researched Davy Lowston and other New Zealand folk songs for a PhD thesis. He told me there are many uncertainties about the true origins of the song – although it refers to a New Zealand story, it is almost certainly impossible to ascertain where and by who it was actually composed. Michael made the observation that although many performers and academics have claimed it as a New Zealand song, it is in reality a “song of the sea;” one that probably drifted around the ports of New Zealand and Australia in the early-mid 1800’s. I like that idea a lot – I have begun to see Davy Lowston as a landless song, an oceanic drifter, like an albatross or a shearwater. An idea of tragic beauty that formed in some long-gone sea-fearing mind and blew with the winds from port to port, only to vanish from sight, then finally to reappear, thanks to the work of people like Neil Colquhoun.

After finding Neil and Barbie’s place about 15 minutes on from Warkworth, I parked the car and walked in through a generously verdant garden, the centrepiece of which was a tangelo tree laden with fat orange fruit, a strange sight for a southern lad in the middle of winter. After lunch I sat Neil down in a  chair and we began talking. At the end of the interview, conversation turned to the grand piano in the corner of the room. On a whim, I asked Neil to play something so I could film it. He sat down and played the chords to Davy Lowston. The grand piano thumped and bellowed and from behind the camera I imagined I was on some old ship, bound for Australia with a hold full of whale oil and a headache from the previous night’s drinking –  with that tune rolling around in my wandering mind.

I write this from Auckland airport. I am bound for Australia today, not under creaking sail but in the cabin of a Boeing. My first stop is Sydney – where the Davy Lowston story has its genesis. Stay tuned for more…