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Lowlands (Away)

[ Roud 681 ; Henry H469 ; Ballad Index PBB100 ; Mudcat 134132 ; trad.]

Joanne C. Colcord: Songs of American Sailormen Inglis Gundry: Canow Kernow Gale Huntington: Sam Henry's Songs of the People Stephen Sedley: The Seeds of Love

Stan Kelly sang Lowlands Away in 1958 on his Topic EP Liverpool Packet: Songs of the Great Seaport and on the anthology CD Sailors' Songs & Sea Shanties. He and A.L. Lloyd commented in the original album's liner notes:

It often happens that long ballads become whittled down into short lyrical songs. The dwindling of Captain Wedderburn's Courtship into I Gave My Love a Cherry is a case in point. So too some forgotten narrative ballad of the return of a ghostly lover has survived as a lyrical fragment that sometimes turns up as a windlass or capstan shanty. No doubt the original ballad is old; the tune has an antique grandeur; yet in the form in which it is sung here it probably does not pre-date the nineteenth century. Negro cotton lumpers in the southern ports of USA had a special affection for this very English tune.

Robin Hall and Jimmie MacGregor with The Galliards sang Lowlands in 1962 on their Decca LP A Rovin'.

Anne Briggs sang Lowlands in 1964 on her Topic Records EP The Hazards of Love. This recording was reissued on her Fellside and Topic compilation CDs, Classic Anne Briggs and A Collection. A.L. Lloyd wrote in the album's sleeve notes:

The song is a bit of a mystery. It has often been found in tradition in Britain and USA but always as a sailor shanty, usually sung while working at the pumps. Two distinct sets of words accompany the tune: one text tells the present story of the dead lover who returns; the other text concerns the work and pay of cotton-lumbers in the port of Mobile, Alabama. Deceived by the latter version, some specialists declare it to be a Negro song. More likely, it's a fragment of an Anglo-Scots ballad, full form forgotten, that lived on among British seamen who passed it on to longshoremen in the Gulf ports. The “Lowlands” refrain may be an echo from the old ballad of The Golden Vanity. Captain Whall, best of the pioneer shanty collectors, says that in Liverpool in the old days a crew of merchant seaman was often spoken of as “the Johns” so the term “my John” in the ballad is no more personal than “my lad”. Anne Briggs sings Lowlands not as a shanty but as a ballad, in what is probably something like its original form.

A sample of Anne Briggs' singing of Lowlands is on State River Widening's 2004 album Cottonhead and on the charity album Live in Hope: The Wildlife Album 2.

And Shirley Collins' sang Lowlands as part of her and her sister Dolly's Song Story which was one half of both their albums Anthems in Eden (1969) and Amaranth (1976).

The Tees-side Fettlers sang Lowlands as part of a shanty set on their 1975 Traditional Sound Recordings album Ring of Iron.

Bob Davenport sang Lowlands in 1977 on his LP Postcards Home.

Regulars of Sandy Bell's Bar in Edinburgh sang Lowlands (Away) in 1977 on the Dara album Sandy Bell's Ceilidh. This album was reissued on CD in 2006 by Greentrax.

The Shanty Men led by Don Shepherd sang the pump shanty Lowlands in 1978 on their Greenwich Village album The Shanty Men.

Swan Arcade sang Lowlands Away in 1990 on their CD Full Circle.

Stan Hugill sang Lowlands in 1978 at the Seattle Chantey Festival during the American Sail Training Association's 1978 Tall Ships Pacific, which was released in the following year on Sea Songs Seattle, in 1979 on his Greenwich Village album Aboard the Cutty Sark, in 1988 live at Mystic Seaport which was released in 1998 on Stan Hugill in Concert at Mystic Seaport, and in 1989 live at “Fêtes du chant de marin” at Paimpol which was released in 1992 on his CD Chants des Marins Anglais. This video shows Stan Hugill and friends at the International Shanty Festival Workum in 1990:

Cyril Tawney sang Lowlands Away in his 1990 Neptune Tapes cassette Sailor's Delight.

Folly Bridge sang Lowlands in 1992 on their second WildGoose cassette, Unabridged.

Calennig sang Lowlands in 1994 on their album of stories of the Severn Sea, Trade Winds (Gwyntoedd Mor Hafren).

Cliff Haslam sang Lowlands in 2001 at the 22nd Annual Sea Music Festival at Mystic Seaport.

Alasdair Roberts sang Lowlands on his 2001 album The Crook of My Arm.

John Tams et al sang Lowlands on the 2004 soundtrack EP No. 47 Music of The Good Hope, accompanying Lee Hall's 2001 version of Herman Heijerman's 1900 play The Good Hope, which is based on the true story of a Dutch fishing community whose men were sent to sea in a rotten boat.

Isambarde sang Lowlands Away on their 2004 album Brunel's Kingdom.

Isla St Clair sang Lowlands Away on her 2004 CD Looking Forward to the Past. She noted:

This 17th century song describes the feeling of desolation felt by a woman who knows that her true love is dead—drowned in the Lowlands of Holland.

June Tabor and the Oysterband sang Lowlands live on 18-20 May 2004 at Bush Hall, London. A recording of his concert was release on the CD The Bog Session Volume 1.

Coope Boyes & Simpson sang Dollar and a 'Alf a Day in 2005 on their album of songs collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth and Percy Grainger, Triple Echo. They combined John Perring of Dartmouth's Dollar and a 'Alf a Day collected by Percy Grainger and H.E. Piggott in January 1908 with “a fine text of Lowlands Low from Hugill”.

Rufus Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle sang Lowlands Away in 2006 on the anthology Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys.

Show of Hands sang Lowlands on their 2009 CD Arrogance Ignorance and Greed.

Roger Watson sang Lowlands in 2009 on his WildGoose album Past and Present. He noted:

Folk songs have always inspired many versions and many interpretations… some dream of drowned lovers, others dream of an end to racial injustice.

James Yorkston sang Lowlands Away in 2009 on his CD and DVD Folk Songs.

The Ballina Whalers sang Lowlands in 2012 as the title track of their EP Lowlands.

Jon Boden learned Lowlands at Forest School Camps and from Anne Briggs. He sang it as the 16 January 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day.

Jeff Warner sang Lowlands (Dollar and a Half a Day) accompanied on chorus by Keith Kendrick, Jim Mageean, Doug Bailey and Barbara Brown, on the 2012 anthology of sea songs collected from John Short by Cecil Sharp, Short Sharp Shanties Vol. 3. The accompanying notes commented:

L.A. Smith and Whall believe that this shanty was the precursor of the “I Dreamed a Dream” (dead lover) versions of Lowlands: Fox-Smith and Colcord think the transition was the other way round—possibly “based on an earlier English or Scottish ballad”. In this form, however, without the dream, it is purely Negro in origin and from the cotton ports of the South. Hugill is nearest the mark when he says that “the only sure point is that this shanty at some time passed through the shanty mart of Mobile and was moulded accordingly.” Short’s text was, as often, minimal—here we have added floating “were you ever in…” verses.

Sharp noted this shanty on the 20th of April, but amended his notebook when Short sang it again on the 21st and noted: “I have no doubt but that this is correct.” He did not publish it. All the authorities agree that it is difficult to transcribe. Sharp was fastidious—witness how elaborate some of his notations are. We gave this to Jeff and he has produced a rendition that fully justified our faith in him—solid as a rock and achingly plaintive!

Sound Tradition sang Lowlands in 2017 on their CD Well Met, My Friend. They noted:

A shanty found in British and USA tradition, sung while working the pumps (or pulling up a snagged anchor). There are two distinct sets of words; one concerning a dead lover (as here), the other, the work and pay of Alabama cotton-lumbers. Folk collector A.L. Lloyd felt it could be a fragment of an Anglo-Scots ballad that was passed on to British seamen.

Incidentally, the phrase “my John” refers to a 19th century habit of calling deckshands “Johns”, so it may not be a specific person—rather “my sailor”.

The Lowlands could refer to a number of seafaring regions, including Holland, the Caribbean Lowlands or perhaps the ‘Virginia Lowlands’ made famous in other well-loved folk songs. Whatever its origins, it's a powerful song which has a haunting beauty to it.

Sophie Crawford sang Lowlands on her 2018 album Silver Pin. She found it ”on a collection of sea shanties.”

Bonny Light Horseman (Anaïs Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson and Josh Kaufman) sang Lowlands in 2020 on their eponymous album Bonny Light Horseman.

Lyrics

Anne Briggs sings Lowlands Shirley Collins sings Lowlands

I dreamed a dream the other night,
Lowlands, lowlands away, my John,
I dreamed a dream the other night,
My lowlands away.

I dreamed a dream the other night,
Lowlands, lowlands away, my John,
I dreamed a dream the other night,
Lowlands away.

I dreamed I saw my own true love,
Lowlands, lowlands away, my John,
I dreamed I saw my own true love,
My lowlands away.

I dreamed my love came standing by,
Lowlands, lowlands away, my John,
Came standing close to my bedside,
Lowlands away.

He was green and wet with weeds so cold,
Lowlands, lowlands away, my John,
He was green and wet with weeds so cold,
My lowlands away.

He's drowning in the lowlands sea,
Lowlands, lowlands away, my John,
And evermore coming back to me,
Lowlands away.

I'll cut away my bonny hair,
Lowlands, lowlands away, my John,
For no other man shall think me fair,
My lowlands away.

He's drowning in the lowlands low,
Lowlands, lowlands away, my John,
And evermore shall I him know,
Lowlands away.

For my love lies drowned in the windy lowlands,
Lowlands, lowlands away, my John,
For my love lies drowned in the windy lowlands,
My lowlands away.

He lies there in the windy lowlands,
Lowlands, lowlands away, my John,
He lies there in the windy lowlands,
Lowlands away.

Folly Bridge sing Lowlands Sophie Crawford sings Lowlands

I dreamed a dream the other night,
Lowlands, lowlands away, my John,
I dreamed a dream the other night,
Lowlands, my lowlands away.

I dreamed a dream the other night,
Lowlands, lowlands away, my boy,
I dreamed a dream the other night,
Lowlands away.

And I dreamed I saw my own true love,
Lowlands, lowlands away, my John,
I dreamed I saw my own true love,
Lowlands, my lowlands away.

I dreamed I saw my own true love,
Lowlands, lowlands away, my boy,
I dreamed I saw my own true love,
Lowlands away.

And the salt-sea weed it was in her hair,
Lowlands, lowlands away, my John,
And the salt-sea weed it was in her hair,
Lowlands, my lowlands away.

It was then I knew that my love was dead,
Lowlands, lowlands away, my John,
It was then I knew that my love was dead,
Lowlands, my lowlands away.

My love lies drowned in that lowland sea,
Lowlands, lowlands away, my John,
My love lies drowned in that lowland sea,
Lowlands, my lowlands away.

I dreamed my love was drowned and dead,
Lowlands, lowlands away, my boy,
I dreamed my love was drowned and dead,
Lowlands away.

(repeat first verse)

(repeat first verse)