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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…

Bound for America

I’m coming to the end of my current job in Dunedin and preparing to head out into the world on an amazing adventure. First stop is Australia, where I have a few gigs lined up; one each in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. From there, its on to America, where I have the thrilling opportunity of filming a documentary about New Zealand songwriter Donna Dean, who is touring over there with her Dunedin-based band. I’ve never been to the States before, so this is an opportunity too good to refuse!

donna dean

As well as filming for a documentary on Donna, I plan to work towards another couple of creative projects, which will give me the impetus to travel from one side of America to the other, taking in both coasts and the vast mythical landscape in between . The first is a film exploring the song “Davy Lowston,” which I have alluded to in previous posts. I plan to track the journey of this old New Zealand folk tune from the remote shores of the South Island to America and beyond. Another area of interest for me is Massachusetts on the north eastern shoulder of the continent, and particularly its whaling ports such as New Bedford and Nantucket. I have been researching for a whaling documentary for a while now, so I plan to make my way up there after Donna’s tour finishes and see what I can dig out.

I have a strong sense I’m going to be uncovering some pretty fascinating stories on this trip, so stay posted to this blog because I’ll be regularly posting updates. For now, it’s prep time – I’m organizing all my video equipment and booking flights and of course loading up the MP3 player with appropriate tunes to guide me on my way. My research into Davy Lowston has already led me down some interesting musical paths. A few days ago I started listening to Seattle duo Pint and Dale. They specialize in music of the sea and recorded Davy Lowston for their 2001 album White Horses. I emailed William and Felicia the other day and they sent me a download of their latest album Blue Divide. My first stop in the US may be Seattle, where I hope to catch up with these two. Stay tuned.


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.


The ghosts of dead miners

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A thick fog besieges Naseby, oozing through the pine trees and pressing itself up against old mining cottages and the town’s two pubs. The blue smell of woodsmoke hangs in the air and all is quiet on this damp autumn morning in the Maniototo.  Inside the Royal hotel the publican is stoking up the embers of last night’s fire, piling in hunks of radiata until the fire is blazing. In the corner of the room an accordionist warms up his instrument while the ghosts of old miners, curlers, shepherds and tramps stir in the recesses of the bar.

This was the scene I soaked up on Saturday morning, the first day of the Maniototo’s Bards, Ballads and Bulldust festival. I was playing in a  group with three quarters of The Chaps – Marcus Turner, John Dodd and Hyram Ballard; some of Dunedin’s best musicians. It was real thrill for me to be playing with these guys – I certainly felt pressure to lift my game and I only felt I was starting to get it right by the time we played our fourth set at the Ranfurly pub on Sunday afternoon. Our four gigs were spread across the Maniototo basin – at the Waipiata pub, Dansey’s Pass hotel and the Royal in Naseby. At each venue small but appreciative audiences heard us play a two hour set of songs – originals and covers, many which reflected the gold-mining theme of the weekend.

Picture Credit:Alexander Turnbull lIbrary

Picture Credit:Alexander Turnbull lIbrary

A highlight for me was the Dansey’s Pass show, where we enjoyed the acoustics of this beautiful old pub and played in front of a vast open fire. After the show I wandered down through the old gold diggings, past discarded sluice guns and the skeletons of old miners’ buildings to the river. The Kyeburn was in flood, raging through its gulch in the Central landscape and surging across mighty schist boulders worn round and smooth by the rushing of the centuries. A common theme of the poems and songs we heard over the weekend was a real passion for this part of New Zealand – legends like John Grenell, Ross McMillan and Brian Turner all expressed their strong feelings for this place. Standing on the banks of the Kyeburn on Sunday morning I  understood it. There is a powerful sense of living history in this area; river, stone and steel left as if the figures of the past had only just moved on for richer fields.
The group we put together for the event was fairly hastily thrown together – we’d had a couple of practises in Dunedin but I sort of felt I was still learning the songs on the job. I wished I’d  practised more at home before the weekend!

One of the thrills of a thing like this is hearing and learning the songs other people bring to the mix.

Some of the songs that the others tabled included:

Davy Lowston

One of the very few Pakeha traditional songs known to exist, this very old song tells the tale of a group of sealers who were stranded for four years on the Open Bay Islands off the Westland coast in 1810. The remains of their hut can still be found on these islands.

Farmer is the Man

An old industrial song of the American plains, given a modern reading here by Otis Gibbs. The version we played at the Maniototo had  a slow country rock feel that owed something to Neil Young or Steve Earle.

Tuapeka Gold

A New Zealand folk original by Phil Garland, the godfather of New Zealand folk.

I threw in three of mine as well as Bruce Springsteen’s “Youngstown,” which I really enjoyed playing with these guys.

Here’s a video of  Bruce and band performing Youngstown in London’s Hyde Park, in which my personal guitar hero Nils Lofgren summons the ghosts of Ohio’s steel workers from their graves with a devastating, spine-chilling solo. Enjoy.