The Dignity of “The Dutchman” (and His Wife)

Sometimes, life is just crappy and sad, so sad. And those who bear it may show tremendous dignity, but that doesn’t necessarily earn them a return of cheerfulness the next day, or the next year, or ever. Life is never even remotely that fair.

“The Dutchman” and his devoted wife look to be two such people. Michael Peter Smith’s haunting elegy to aging and dementia casts a plaintive poetic glow that settles on the quietly shifting scenes like a dreamy summer fog as Margaret guides her ex-seaman husband through his old haunts in Amsterdam. His faculties ebbing, she serves as both his physical escort and his memory.

The wedding day question “Till-death-do-you-part?” meets its existential peak in dementia. Margaret answers it not with mere words these many years later, but with simple telling details that Smith fills in for us: patching the Dutchman’s cap and coat, adding whiskey to his tea (“keeps away the dew”), and abiding his belief that “tulips bloom beneath the snow.”

And in one devastating master stroke that ratchets up the melancholy and suggests untold past sorrows about which the song will reveal no more, Smith ends one stanza with: “Sometimes she sees her unborn children in his eyes.”

This is some very fine songwriting.

Like most songs, The Dutchman reads better encased in its music, its easy melodic line, memorable chorus and measured storytelling pace serving as perfect ballast to the lyrical profundity. So I suggest giving it a listen before reading the lyrics. Smith does lovely work on several You Tube clips at the link below, where you can also catch John Gorka’s depthful adaptation—including slight lyrical variations—in a number of venues.

For nicely refined studio renditions, catch Smith, Gorka and scores of others who have honored this song here:!/search?q=The+Dutchman

The Dutchman

The Dutchman’s not the kind of man
To keep his thumb jammed in the dam
That holds his dreams in
But that’s a secret only Margaret knows
When Amsterdam is golden in the morning
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

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 still wears wooden shoes
His cap and coat are patched with love
That Margaret sewed in
Sometimes he thinks he’s still in Rotterdam
He watches tugboats down canals
And calls out to them when he thinks he knows the captain
‘Til Margaret comes to take him home again
Through unforgiving streets that trip him
Though she holds his arm
Sometimes he thinks that he’s alone and calls her name


The windmills whirl the winter in
She winds his muffler tighter
They sit in the kitchen
Some tea with whiskey keeps away the dew
He sees her for a moment calls her name
She makes the bed up humming some old love song
She learned it when the tune was very new
He hums a line or two
They hum together in the night
The Dutchman falls asleep and Margaret blows the candle out


Copyright Michael Peter Smith
Bird Avenue Publishing ASCAP
Reprinted with permission of the author


Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at:


One comment to The Dignity of “The Dutchman” (and His Wife)

  • Thad  says:

    Really liked what you had to say in your post, The Dignity of “The Dutchman” (and His Wife), thanks for the good read!
    — Thad

Leave a Reply