The Dutchman, by Steve Goodman

This is a ballad that Mike Smith made up about two old people who live in Holland. I don’t know how he did it.”

And so begins a beautiful version of “The Dutchman” performed by Steve Goodman, a lovely ballad about an aging couple, the ravages of time, and the dreams of a shared life gone by.

Michael Peter Smith

“The Dutchman” was written by Michael Peter Smith in 1968. Smith, not to be confused with the Christian musician Michael W. Smith, Michael Peter Smith became well known as a part of the same Chicago folk music scene that introduced other greats such as Steve Goodman, John Prine and Bonnie Koloc. Smith has written many great songs through the years, but perhaps none greater than “The Dutchman.”

Various artists have recorded and performed “The Dutchman,” but it is Goodman’s version that has stood the test of time. It begins with a softly lilting acoustic guitar melody for a few measures. Then the story begins.

“The Dutchman’s not the kind of man
Who keeps his thumb jammed in the dam
That holds his dreams in,
But that’s a secret that only Margaret knows.”

Every couple, young or old, has secrets…those tender whisperings that are kept between the two of them, never to be shared beyond. Margaret knows The Dutchman, and she knows him perhaps better than anyone else. She knows him like no one else does. The secrets are theirs.

When Amsterdam is golden in the summer,
Margaret brings him breakfast, she believes him.
He thinks the tulips bloom beneath the snow.

He’s mad as he can be,

but Margaret only sees that sometimes,
Sometimes she sees her unborn children in his eyes.

In only two and a half short verses, a bitter tragedy is laid before us, and a love story is told. We come to learn The Dutchman is senile. He imagines flowers blooming under the snow, and Margaret believes him, maybe just for the sake of saving frustration and confusion, and maintaining happiness and contentment between them. She loves him, and in his eyes, she sees the family that could have been. The family they never had. Then, we hear his perspective in the chorus.

“Let us go to the banks of the ocean
Where the walls rise above the Zuider Zee.
Long ago, I used to be a young man
And dear Margaret remembers that for me.”

The Dutchman may be losing touch, he may be forgetting, but he remembers enough. The ocean, the bay (Zuider Zee) he used to visit. He remembers Margaret, and what The Dutchman forgets, he knows dear Margaret will remember for him.

“The Dutchman still wears wooden shoes,
His cap and coat are patched with the love
That Margaret sewed there.
Sometimes he thinks he’s still in Rotterdam.

And he watches the tug-boats down canals
And calls out to them when he thinks he knows the Captain.
Till Margaret comes
To take him home again.”

He is only grounded when Margaret returns. When she is away, he wanders. He imagines. He thinks he knows people that he doesn’t. Maybe the boats remind him of when he was a younger man. Maybe it is only when he is with Margaret that he truly feels he is at home, wherever he may be. Anywhere, with Margaret, is home.

For those who are fortunate to have spent their life with someone else, there is a peace and contentment that only that someone else can provide. The patches on his coat, sewn by Margaret, tell their own story and history.

“The winters whirl the windmills ’round
She winds his muffler tighter
And they sit in the kitchen.
Some tea with whiskey keeps away the dew

And he sees her for a moment, calls her name,
She makes the bed singing some old love song,
A song Margaret learned
When it was very new

He hums a line or two, they sing together in the dark.
The Dutchman falls asleep and Margaret blows the candle out.”

“The Dutchman” sounds exactly like you might think it should. It sounds gentle. Welcoming. Forgiving. The chorus invites us to sing along, allowing us perhaps to mentally prepare for a time when we might imagine things. When we might need our spouse, a partner, to help us maintain a level of reality and grounding.

And together we sing:

“Let us go to the banks of the ocean
Where the walls rise above the Zuider Zee.
Long ago, I used to be a young man
And dear Margaret remembers that for me.”

“The Dutchman”
Written by Michael Peter Smith
Performed by Steve Goodman
Released 1968

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