DESCRIPTION: "My name is Davy Lowston, I did seal, I did seal." Lowston and crew are left to hunt seal; the ship which is to retrieve them is wrecked. After much privation, the survivors are rescued by the Governor Bligh. Lowston advises against sealing
EARLIEST DATE: 1967 (Bailey/Roth-ShantiesByTheWay-NZ); reportedly collected by John Leebrick in the 1920s
KEYWORDS: hunting wreck disaster hardtimes rescue New Zealand ordeal
FOUND IN: US(NE)
REFERENCES (5 citations):
Bailey/Roth-ShantiesByTheWay-NZ, "David Lowston" (1 text, 1 tune)
Colquhoun-NZ-Folksongs-SongOfAYoungCountry, p. 14, "Davy Lowston" (1 text, 1 tune) (p. 7 in the 1972 edition)
Cleveland-NZ-GreatNewZealandSongbook, pp. 41-42, "David Lowston" (1 text, 1 tune)
Garland-FacesInTheFirelight-NZ, p. 45, "(Davy Lowston)" (1 text)
cf. "We Will Not Go to White Bay with Casey Any More" (plot)
NOTES [941 words]: It is ironic to note that this most iconic of New Zealand folk songs was not found in that country but rather was found by John Leebrick in the United States. Bill Morris, who as of this writing (2019) is working on a documentary about this song, tells me that Neil Colquhoun talked to Leebrick in the 1950s. It appears that all known versions derive from this report of a reported version. And no one now alive seems to know much about Leebrick. There is obviously a possibility that Colquhoun had a hand in the text or (even more likely) setting the tune.
This song is a mostly-true story, though there has been a lot of confusion along the way. The best summary seems to be from "The Story of David Lowston, a pre-colonial NZ song," an article by Frank Fyfe published in the Journal of New Zealand Folklore in 1970 and now available online at the New Zealand folklore web site.
All dates in what follows are somewhat uncertain. I'm going to leave out all the "probablies" and just summarize.
It was in 1809 that the brig Active, Captain John Bader (corrupted to Bedar in the song, probably for metrical reasons) advertised for hands. The Active sailed from Sydney on December 11, 1809; on February 16, 1810, a party of ten sealers under David Lowrieston was left on an island off New Zealand. They had relatively few supplies; Bader promised to return soon with more, but the Active was never seen again.
The sealing crew had to survive by hunting seals and digging up roots; they seem to have been amazingly inept, watching two boats destroyed, but despite their privations (and the implication of the song), none of them actually died. They were rescued by the Governor Bligh, and arrived in Sydney on December 15, 1813.
This practice of leaving sealers on an island to hunt, incidentally, had been common for some decades; Port Jackson (Sydney) had been established in 1788, and it was used as a sealing supply hub almost at once (so Briton Cooper Busch, The War Against the Seals: A History of the North American Seal Fishery, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1985, p. 28). By 1800 we find contracts made between the ships and the sealers, including rules for what to do if the ship did not return on time. Interestingly, the 1800 contract did not include a provision for what to do if the ship did not return at all, or how long to wait for it (Busch, pp. 12-13).
Garland-FacesInTheFirelight-NZ, pp. 46-47, quotes an article from the Dec. 23, 1813 Sydney Gazette telling what was known at the time. On p. 47 Garland quotes an account of the finding of the Active's wreck in 1847.
All of this fits with what we know about New Zealand sealing. Gordon McLauchlan, editor-in-chief, New Zealand Encyclopedia, David Bateman Limited, 1984, p. 491, says that sealers came to New Zealand within a quarter of a century of Captain Cook's discovery of the country -- only to hunt the seals effectively to extinction within three decades. "In NZ only fur seals were of any commercial value, because the water was too warm for any build-up of blubber under the skin" (although there were blubber seals on the islands to the south that were worth taking for oil). "The first sealers concentrated on Fiordland where large numbers of seals were found on the rocks around the coastline and on small islands nearby. During the first 20 years, tens of housands of skins were taken each season from the Dusky Sound area, and round Foveaux Strait and Stewart Island.... [T]he men themselves were often left on the shore for months at a time to be picked up later with their kills, having survived arduous and uncomfortable living conditions." (Although, as any Newfoundlander can tell you, conditions on a sealing ship also featured arduous and uncomfortable living conditins!)
The rest of Fyfe's speculation must be taken with a grain of salt. He believes the song to be based on "Captain Kidd," and there are obvious resemblances of form. However, "Davy Lowston" as it was collected (from an American, of all things) is not sung to "Captain Kidd," and while several of the musical phrases are similar, others are strikingly different.
Indeed, "Davy Lowston" cannot be sung to the usual "Captain Kidd"/"Wondrous Love" by any amount of squeezing, as the following analysis will show; I print the common text of "Davy Lowston," and note the differing number of syllables in "Captain Kidd."
My name is Davy Lowston (1 extra syllable in DL; could perhaps be adapted -- though Fyfe argues that the original was "My name is David Lawrieston," which would never fit no matter what squeezing applied)
I did seal, I did seal (compatible)
My name is Davy Lowston, I did seal. (compatible)
Though my men and I were lost (1 extra syllable in DL; could be adapted)
Though our very lives it cost (1 fewer syllable in DL, hard to adapt)
We did seal (2 fewer syllable in DL, no adaption possible)
We did seal, we did seal. (compatible with some versions of Captain Kidd).
I allow the possibility that "Davy Lowston" is derived from Captain Kidd, or one of its folk relatives, but it's far from certain.
Cleveland lists the tune not as "Captain Kidd" but as "Sam Hall." The two are of course similar, but I think "Sam Hall" is a better fit. Although the way I've heard "Davy Lowston" is not quite the same as any version of "Sam Hall" that I've heard.
Fyfe also believed that the song was brought to the United States by the whaler Erie, which sailed the southern Pacific starting in 1832 and was lost in 1840. This is certainly possible, but I'd need stronger evidence than Fyfe offered.
Thanks to Bill Morris for sharing his research on this song. - RBW
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