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Davy Lowston

[ Roud - ; Ballad Index DTdavylo ; trad.]

Davy Lowston is the story of men left to hunt seal on an island near New Zealand in 1810. Since their ship was wrecked soon after it couldn't retrieve them, and they had to survive for three years until being rescued. For more details see Frank Fyfe's article, The story of David Lowston, a pre-colonial NZ song.

Martin Carthy learned Davy Lowston from the singing of A.L. Lloyd and recorded it with Dave Swarbrick for their 1967 album Byker Hill; this track was also included on their compilation album Selections and on Martin Carthy: A Collection. He noted on his original album:

New Zealand has not as yet been notable for producing good songs—most Antipodean songs are from Australia—but Davy Lowston is a New Zealand song about the seal hunters who, each season, go down into the Antarctic. It is a remarkable song in several ways; firstly because it underlines the difference between reading a song on a piece of paper and actually singing it; secondly in its brevity; and also because it uncovers and encompasses more in four verses than do many songs with several times that number.

Lloyd's Antarctic version “where the icebergs tower high” seems to be the source for most revival versions recorded later. Also, in his version the captain's destination is given as Port Stanley, which may be the port of Stanley on Tasmania, which opened in 1827, or Port Stanley on the Falklands on the other side of the Antarctics, which was founded in 1843—both long after the song's events in 1810-13.

June Tabor sang Davy Lowston on her 1980 album with Martin Simpson, A Cut Above. She used the verses printed in Fyfe's article, leaving out verse 2.

Jolly Jack sang Davy Lowston in 1983 on their Fellside album Rolling Down to Old Maui, also using Fyfe's verses minus verse 2. They noted:

The short-lived Antipodean sealing trade was hard. Men would be shipped out to the Southern islands where they were left to live in squalid conditions while hunting the seal. They would be collected again a year later, though many were forgotten and marooned for years. This tragic song from New Zealand tells of one true adventure. David Loweriston and his men were left in Open Bay in February 1810. It was several years later before they were picked up by the Governor Bligh, their own vessel Active having foundered.

Louis Killen sang a mix of both variants of Davy Lowston, including Captain John McGraw and Port Stanly and both final verse with the Governor Bligh rescue and the icebergs, on his 1995 CD Sailors, Ships & Chanteys. He noted:

Most of this version came from the singing of A.L. (Bert) Lloyd with a couple of verses from a version by a New Zealand group called The Song Spinners. The song's origin is New Zealand, but the authorship is unknown. It has gone through the oral process. In reality, the person was David Loweriston; his ship was the Active, its captain's name was Bader. The sealers were set down on an island in Open Bay in February 1810, and all of the sealers were taken off by the Governor Bligh several years later.

The American duo William Pint and Felicia Dale sang Davy Lowston on their 2001 album White Horses. According to their album sleeve notes they learned it from Martin Carthy who told them he got it from A.L. Lloyd. However, I don't know of any recording of this song by Lloyd.

Danny Spooner sang Davy Lowston on his 2006 CD of songs of the whaling industry, The Great Leviathan. He noted

The Britannia brought convicts to NSW in 1792 and having landed her human cargo went whaling. On the same trip she left men on Dusky Bay NZ to hunt seals. They were picked up a year later having taken and cured 4,500 sealskins. These would be the first industries in the new colony. Sealers were left on the southern islands and around the coastlines of Australia and New Zealand, living in miserable conditions and working like dogs. They often captured indigenous women to ease their pain. Many sealers were marooned for years, some were never found.

The hero of this song was one David Loweriston, his ship was the brig Active, and he and his mates were left on Open Bay in February 1810. Though none actually died it was not until several years later that they were taken off the island by the Governor Bligh.

Tom Kitching and Gren Bartley sang Davy Lowston, “a popular example of what Frank Marmion would call ‘a bad salad’ ”, in 2007 on their Fellside album Rushes.

Lucy Farrell sang Davy Lowston on the Furrow Collective's 2018 album Fathoms. They noted:

Lucy heard this New Zealand song on the 1967 Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick LP Byker Hill; she loves how so much emotion and atmosphere is communicated through such a short song. It relates the adventures which befell a party of sealers who had responded to an advertisement displayed in Sydney in 1809, seeking men “for the brig Active, shortly about to sail on a promising and pleasant voyage”. Under the leadership of David Lawrieston, the Active landed her crew of ten sealers on an island about a mile and a half from the coast of New Zealand before sailing off, never to be heard from again. Varying accounts of the men's fate are all pretty grim; the general moral seems to be never to go seal hunting!

Lyrics

Davy Lowston in Frank Fyfe's article Martin Carthy sings Davy Lowston

Oh my name is Davy Lowston, I did seal, I did seal,
Oh my name is Davy Lowston, I did seal.
Now my men and I were lost,
Though our very lives it cost
We did seal, we did seal, we did seal.

Oh my name is Davy Lowston, I did seal, I did seal,
Oh my name is Davy Lowston, I did seal.
Though my men and I were lost,
Though our very lives it cost,
We did seal, we did seal, we did seal.

'Twas in eighteen hundred and ten, we set sail, we set sail.
'Twas in eighteen hundred and ten we set sail.
We were left we gallant men,
Never more to sail again,
For to seal, for to seal, for to seal.

We were set down in Open Bay, were set down, were set down,
We were set down in Open Bay, we were set down.
We were left, we gallant men,
Nevermore to sail again,
For to sail, for to sail, for to sail.

We were set down in Open Bay, were set down, were set down,
We were set down in Open Bay, we were set down.
We were left, we gallant men,
Nevermore to sail again,
Nevermore, nevermore, nevermore.

Our captain John Bedar, he set sail, he set sail,
Yes, for Port Jackson he set sail.
“I'll return, men, without fail!”
But she foundered in the gale
And went down, and went down, and went down.

Our captain John McGraw, he set sail, he set sail,
Oh yes, for old Port Stanley he set sail.
“I'll return, men, without fail!”
But she foundered in the gale
And went down, and went down, and went down.

We cured ten thousand skins, for the fur, for the fur,
Yes we cured ten thousand skins for the fur.
Brackish water, putrid seal,
We did all of us fall ill,
For to die, for to die, for to die.

Come all you lads who sail upon the sea, sail the sea,
Come all you jacks who sail upon the sea,
Though the schooner “Governor Bligh”
Took up some who did not die,
Never seal, never seal, never seal.

So come all you lads who venture far from home, far from home,
Come all you lads who venture far from home,
Where the icebergs tower high,
That's a pitiful place to die,
Never seal, never seal, never seal.

Louis Killen sings Davy Lowston

My name is Davy Lowston, I did seal, I did seal,
My name is Davy Lowston, I did seal.
Though my men and I were lost,
Though our very lives it cost
We did seal, we did seal, we did seal.

We were set down in Open Bay, were set down, were set down,
We were set down in Open Bay, were set down.
We were left, us gallant men,
Nevermore to sail again,
For to sail, nevermore for to sail.

Our captain John McGraw, he set sail, he set sail,
Oh yes, for old Port Stanley he set sail.
“I'll return, men, without fail!”
But she foundered in the gale
And went down, and went down, and went down.

We cured ten thousand skins, for the fur, for the fur,
We cured ten thousand skins for the fur.
Brackish water, putrid seal,
And we all of us fell ill,
For to die, we fell ill for to die.

Come all you men who sail upon the sea, on the sea,
Come all you men who sail upon the sea,
Though the schooner “Governor Bligh”
Took up some who did not die,
Never seal, never seal, never seal.

And come all you men who venture far from home, far from home,
Come all you men who venture far from home,
Where the icebergs tower high,
That's a pitiful place to die,
Never seal, never seal, never seal.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Wolfgang Hell for the transcription of Martin Carthy's singing. Thanks to Rudy Sunde of The Maritime Crew who sings Davy Lowston in the original New Zealand version and who told me more about the song's origins.