I thought I’d finished with this blog, but my love of the music hasn’t diminished and it’s been in the back of my mind to keep posting. Like an itch that can’t be scratched. I’m particularly prone to spurts of enthusiasm when I encounter a new subject. In the past it’s been ancient coins or French (you can probably guess I’m on the geeky side). But, to my own eternal frustration, those interests often fizzle and I latch on to something new. And the cycle continues. Certain interests have stuck, however, and this appears to be one of them.
“Bonny Bee Hom” is a ballad that tells of a woman’s lament for her love who is going to sea. It is also, as far as I know, not sung anymore. But folk music is like a whole ecosystem. In a forest the plants and wildlife are constantly changing, growing old, dying, adapting to new environments and interlopers. Even the mighty, centuries-old trees that may appear immortal have changed over time and will someday expire. Ballads change as the language and times change. They change as immigrants arrive and emigrants depart. This can make it difficult, as Francis James Child found, to demarcate where a ballad begins and ends. How different does it have to be before it becomes a new song entirely?
“The Lowlands of Holland” is a much more commonly known ballad and is vaguely related to “Bonny Bee Hom”. The story is similar – it describes a woman who laments her love who was press-ganged into the Royal Navy (more on that later) and then drowned. One section in particular, is strikingly similar to another from Bee Hom. It goes:
‘There shall neither coif come on my head
nor comb come in my hair;
There shall neither coal nor candle-light
shine in my bower mair [more];
Nor will I love another one until the day I die,
For I never lovd a love but one, and he’s
drowned in the sea.
Then in Bee Hom:
‘Ohon, alas! what shall I do,
Tormented night and day!
I never loved a love but ane [one],
And now he’s gone away.
‘But I will do for my true-love
What ladies woud think sair [sore – or “distressing”];
For seven year shall come and go
Ere a kaim [comb] gang in my hair.
Of course, in folk songs, quotes and imagery are often borrowed as a necessary mnemonic device – since they were passed down orally. There are also many differences between these two, which I won’t go into here, but those lines and the general subject matter are enough to link them in my view. Just know that it’s a bit of a fool’s errand to try to definitively categorize folk music. It’s about as far from an exact science as you can get.
The “Holland” where the man is set to sail does not appear to be the actual Netherlands. The song describes the land as one “Where sugar there in canes do grow, the tea falls from the tree” which would require a tropical climate Holland is not exactly known for. Most likely it refers to the Dutch East Indies or “New Holland” – an old name for Australia. Those areas were rife with British naval activity that saw them constantly at odds with the Dutch and French. Which required a steady supply of young men to crew their ships.
The woman’s husband, in the song, is taken from her by a press gang. These were groups of men who patrolled coastal towns in Britain looking for able bodied men to crew ships for the Royal Navy. They often had to resort to kidnapping and violence. Generally the men they chose already worked on merchant or fishing vessels. “Gentlemen” were exempted. The practice was much hated but the lower classes had little legal recourse. It was, in fact, one of the 27 colonial grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence and a major cause of the War of 1812. Eventually the practice died out as conscription became commonplace, though, as we see today with Russia’s war in Ukraine, conscription can also fall disproportionately on the marginalized, with exemptions for those higher on the social ladder.
My favorite recording of “The Lowlands of Holland” is by Ye Vagabonds – consisting of two brothers from Ireland. Being as it’s a mournful song, fewer musicians feels more correct. A number of renditions of the ballad come from Ireland though they probably came from Scotland originally. This is helped by the fact that the “Galloway” in the song (a region of Scotland) can easily be substituted for “Galway” (a town in Ireland).
On a personal note, I had an experience while visiting Portugal recently that reminds me of this song. My friends and I stumbled across a restaurant late at night where a woman sang the most mournful, beautiful songs. In Portugal it’s called fado music – songs of longing and melancholy, often about those who have gone to sea. The experience was so enchanting not just because of the singing – which was wonderful – but the whole atmosphere cast a spell. The lights were turned off, we had the fire from the stove crackling and flaring up behind us, the tables were cramped but the windows and door were open to a cool night breeze. Passersby would poke their heads in and record the singing on their phones. The drinks kept coming and the restaurant owner would join in for certain songs. It’s such an indelible memory for me and a reminder that I should seek out more folk music, Child Ballads or otherwise, in live venues.