The Lowlands of Holland

The folk revival that began in earnest in the US in the 1950s found its way into popular music. Sometime in the late 1960s British musicians realized that they had a huge reservoir of untapped (for pop music purposes) folk material themselves in the form of folks songs and ballads collected over the years in the British Isles.

Several groups came out of this realization. My favorite is probably Steeleye Span. They were hardly the most polished or most authentc or most inventive but they were easily the most fun and the most…. determined about wedding folk music to (then) modern music in a mainstream populist manner.

Their first album (buy it! it’s great!) in 1970 contains one of my favorite songs of theirs, the Lowlands of Holland, with lyrics of undetermined origin but probably from the time of the Anglo-Dutch wars in the 17th century. It consists of a young widow lamenting the death of her husband at sea, recouning his demise and ignoring advice to remarry.

What I love about this version is that it really sounds like a young band coming together and fitting as musicians for the first time. The long tenative introduction with the delicate interplay between the guitar and banjo almost breaks down a few times before stabilizing as the bass, drum and enter just barely in time for the vocalist. By the time they have a break for solos they’ve hit a groove that’s still kind of a delicate thing but still hangs together.

But it’s really Gay Woods who makes the track. Her delivery is engaged but matter of fact in a way that expresses the hopelessness of the young woman’s sorrow more poignantly than would a more emotional performance.

The disruption in her life is mirrored by the change of the last line of each verse. The first three describing her present situation and detailing her husbands voyages end with “But the lowlands of Holland has twined my love and me”. The fourth ends with her husband’s ship sinking (his bonny ship turned withershins about) and the final two end with “For I never had a love but one and he’s drowned in the sea.”

Sadly Woods left the group soon after recording this.

The Lowlands of Holland (Roud 484)

The love that I have chosen I’ll therewith be content,
And the salt sea shall be frozen before that I repent.
Repent it shall I never until the day I dee,
But the lowlands of Holland has twined my love and me.

My love lies in the salt sea and I am on the side.
It’s enough to break a young thing’s heart what lately was a bride.
What lately was a bonny bride with pleasure in her lee,
But the lowlands of Holland has twined my love and me.

My love he built a bonny ship and set her on the sea,
With seven score good mariners to bear her company.
But there’s three score of them is sunk and three score dead at sea
And the lowlands of Holland has twined my love and me.

My love has built anither ship and set her on the main
And nane but twenty mariners all for to bring her hame.
But the weary wind began to rise, the sea began to roll,
And my love then and his bonny ship turned withershins about.

Then shall neither quiff come on my head nor comb come in my hair,
And shall neither coal nor candlelight shine in my bower mair.
And neither will I marry until the day I dee,
For I never had a love but one and he’s drowned in the sea.

“Oh, hold your tongue my daughter dear, be still and be content.
There’s men enough in Galloway; you need not sore lament.”
Oh there’s men enough in Galloway, alas there’s none for me,
For I never had a love but one and he’s drowned in the sea.

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