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Lowlands - Chords, Lyrics and Origins

Origins

There is quite some debate about the origins of Lowlands, or 'Lowlands Away' as it is also known. It is sometimes claimed as Scottish, sometimes as English, and sometimes as American. There is also debate about whether it is a sea-shanty or a ballad. Sea-shanties were working songs, sung in rhythm to a particular job. For example, Capstan ballads were chanted whilst raising or lowering sails; other songs were sung whilst manning pumps. Often shanties have a call and response structure (think of 'Haul Away Joe' for example). I guess this allowed one sailor to set the rhythm of work for the others.

In terms of its call and response structure, 'Lowlands' obviously fits the shanty mode. But is it just too slow and mournful to be a work song? Well, the answer may be 'not necessarily'. Different jobs were executed at different paces. Some jobs, such as pulling up a snagged anchor, might require a very slow tempo indeed. In addition to the call-and-response format, there is also some other evidence that points towards the seafaring community. Firstly, the subject-matter (a drowned sailor). Secondly, the use of the phrase “my John” (no, this doesn't refer to a WC!). 'Johns' was a collective noun used in the nineteenth century to describe a ship's deckhands. So the phrase 'my John' doesn't necessarily invoke a person's name; rather it is the equivalent of 'my sailor' or 'my deckhand'. Possibly 'Lowlands' might have its origins in an earlier, now-lost Anglo-Scots ballad, but all the evidence seems to point towards its being sung at sea.

There are certainly – as so often – several variants of the lyrics.  These seem to fall into two broad categories. One stream – the one represented in the lyrics section, below – concerns a visitation by a drowned lover. The other stream focuses on the working life of sailors based in mobile, Alabama. Presumably, the latter stream explains why the song is sometimes thought of as American in origin.

Chords

Capo at 3rd Fret

G

I dreamt a dream the other night

                                    D7

Lowlands, lowlands, away my John

                             C

I dreamt a dream the other night

D7              G

My lowlands, away

 

 

Lyrics

I dreamt a dream the other night

Lowlands, lowlands, away my John

I dreamt a dream the other night

My lowlands, away

 

I dreamt I saw my own true love,

Lowlands, lowlands, away my John

He stood so still, he did not move,

My lowlands, away

 

I knew my love was drowned and dead,

Lowlands, lowlands, away my John

He stood so still, no word he said

My lowlands, away

 

All dank his hair, all dim his eye,

Lowlands, lowlands, away my John

I knew that he had said goodbye.

My lowlands, away

 

All green and wet with weeds so cold,

Lowlands, lowlands, away my John

Around his form green weeds had hold.

My lowlands, away

 

'I'm drowned in the Lowland Seas,' he said,

Lowlands, lowlands, away my John

'Oh, you an' I will ne'er be wed.'

My lowlands, away

 

'I shall never kiss you more,' he said,

Lowlands, lowlands, away my John

'Never kiss you more --- for I am dead.'

My lowlands, away.

 

'I will cut my breasts until they bleed.'

Lowlands, lowlands, away my John

His form had gone --- in the green weed.

My lowlands, away.

 

'I will cut away my bonnie hair,

Lowlands, lowlands, away my John

No other man will think me fair.'

My lowlands, away.

 

I bound the weeper round my head,

Lowlands, lowlands, away my John

For now I knew my love was dead.

My lowlands, away.

 

My love is drowned in the windy Lowlands,

Lowlands, lowlands, away my John

My love is drowned in the windy Lowlands,

My lowlands, away.

Other Scottish Folk Songs
Other Traditional Folk Songs