Remembering the Old Songs:

The Lily of Arkansas

by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, September 1996)

The best folk songs seem to last for at least five hundred years in tradition. So, it would seem, five years for a song are about as long as one year for a person.

By that standard, this song is merely middle-aged. The first known version was printed by Herd in 1776:

My love has built a bonny ship, and set her on the sea,
With seven score good mariners to bear her company;
There's three score is sunk, and three score dead at sea,
And the lowlands of Holland have twined* my love and me.

The references in The Lowlands of Holland (the generic name for this song) make it appear that it comes out of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), when Lord Marlborough was leading English armies against the French in the Low Countries. Marlborough won most of his battles, but they were bloody affairs.**

Some think that The Lowlands of Holland is even older; they consider it a version of Bonny Bee Hom (Child #92). But the general plot -- about a girl whose sweetheart goes to war and never comes home -- is commonplace, and Bonny Bee Hom also involves a magical token that tells her that her love is true. Also, Bonny Bee Hom had only a tenuous place in oral tradition (to date, no tune for it is known), while The Lowlands of Holland has been found in Britain, the U.S., Ireland, and Australia.

In the years after the War of the Spanish Succession, the song spread and was heavily localized. Several British versions, for instance, refer to the "Lowlands of Germany" or "The Wars of Germany"; after the Hannoverian Succession of 1714 (which put a German on the English throne), the British spent decades interfering in German affairs.

Most American versions have completely lost this theme; the version here -- #83A in Randolph's Ozark Folksongs -- preserves only the brief mention of "France and Spain" (Britain's enemies in the War of the Spanish Succession) to connect it to the older piece. But the basic text is still recognizable -- despite the fact that the singer has changed from a woman to a man! The same cannot always be said for the melody; the simple, almost boring pentatonic tune used here is a far cry from the older English melodies or the modal tune in the Sam Henry collection. (It should be easy to harmonize, though.)

I first learned this song from Cathy Barton and Dave Para***; it turns out that their version is not entirely traditional. I must admit that I don't have any other old-time recordings in my collection (although the Henry bibliography shows that they exist). I've therefore printed the Randolph version (collected in 1928 from Mrs. Lee Stephens), with some minor corrections to the text and a few changes to the tune for style or where I think the transcriber made an error.

The chords I've indicated are a bit lush; they work for rhythm, but you'll want to ignore a lot of them, such as the E7 in the second line, for lead work.


* twined = "cut asunder"

** If you want to know why the English were fighting the French in a "Spanish" war, let me warn you. It's a really complex story involving an imbecile king with no children, all the wealth of South America, and the royal families of Austria, France, Spain, and almost everywhere else that was anywhere. You probably don't want to know. (You certainly don't want me to tell the story.) You might try a biography of Marlborough; Winston Churchill wrote one.

*** On a Day Like Today, Folk-Legacy FSI-107

Lily of Arkansas

Complete Lyrics:

My father built the boat, the ship that sailed the sea,
With four and twenty brave seamen to bear his company.
The waves and wind are beating, while sailing on the sea,
Lie low, the Lily of Arkansas has parted you and me.

I fear my love's been drowned, I fear my love's been slain,
I fear my love's been drowned on his way to France and Spain,
The waves and wind are beating, while sailing on the sea,
Lie low, the Lily of Arkansas has parted you and me.

There's girls enough in Texas, I know there's one for me,
But my dear and lonely loving one is far away from me.
The waves and wind are beating, while sailing on the sea,
Lie low, the Lily of Arkansas has parted you and me.


As stated above, this version comes from Vance Randolph's Ozark Folksongs.

Most editors will refer to this piece as The Lowlands of Holland.

Francis James Child included a fragment of the piece in his discussion of Bonny Bee Hom (Child #92). Bronson's Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads lists twenty-two versions. For the relationship between this song and Bonny Bee Hom, the reader is referred to Coffin and Renwick's The British Traditional Ballad in North America.

Henry, Huntingdon, and Herrmann's Sam Henry's Songs of the People gives an Ulster version, Holland is a Fine Place (H180), plus extensive bibliography and a list of recordings.

Other sources include Flanders and Olney's Ballads Migrant in New England and Meredith and Anderson's Folk Songs of Australia.

The Digital Tradition includes eight texts and four tunes.

Return to the Remembering the Old Songs page.