The Water Is Wide (song)

The Water Is Wide (song)

"The Water Is Wide" (also called "O Waly, Waly") is a folk song of Scottish or English origin that has been sung since the 1600s and has seen considerable popularity through to the 21st century. It is related to Child Ballad 204 (Roud number 87), Jamie Douglas, which in turn refers to the ostensibly unhappy first marriage of James Douglas, 2nd Marquess of Douglas to Lady Barbara Erskine. Cecil Sharp collected this song during his journey to America in World War I.



The inherent challenges of love are made apparent in the narrator's imagery: "Love is handsome, love is kind" during the novel honeymoon phase of any relationship. However, as time progresses, "love grows old, and waxes cold". Even true love, the narrator admits, can "fade away like morning dew"

Andrew Lang glimpsed an earlier history:


From Ramsay's Tea Table Miscellany, a curiously composite gathering of verses. There is a verse, obviously a variant, in a sixteenth century song, cited by Leyden. St. Anthony's Well is on a hill slope of Arthur's Seat, near Holyrood. Here Jeanie Deans trysted with her sister's seducer, in The Heart of Midlothian. The Cairn of Nichol Mushat, the wife-murderer, is not far off. The ruins of Anthony's Chapel are still extant.[1]

The roots of the song are unclear, with some claiming an English origin and others claiming a Scottish origin, which they support by comparison to the ballad Lord Jamie Douglas. However, it is also similar to the Northern Irish song Carrickfergus, which has the lines but the sea is wide/I cannot swim over/And neither have I wings to fly. This song is said to be preceded by an Irish language song whose first line A Bhí Bean Uasal ("It was a noble woman") matches closely the opening line of one known variation of Lord Jamie Douglas: I was a lady of renown. However, the content of the English-language Carrickfergus includes material clearly from the Scots/English songs that is not attested in any known copy of A Bhí Bean Uasal suggesting that there has been considerable interplay between all known traditions.


Waly, Waly, gin Love be bonny

O Waly, waly, (a lament - "woe is me") up the bank,
And waly, waly, doun the brae (hill),
And waly, waly, yon burn-side (riverside),
Where I and my love want to go!
I lean'd my back into an aik (oak),
I thocht it was a trustie tree;
But first it bow'd and syne (soon) it brak (broke)—
Sae my true love did lichtlie (lightly) me.
O waly, waly, gin love be bonnie (beautiful),
A little time while it is new!
But when 'tis auld (old) it waxeth cauld (cold),
And fades awa' like morning dew.
O wherefore should I busk my heid (adorn my head),
Or wherefore should I kame (comb) my hair?
For my true Love has me forsook,
And says he'll never lo'e me mair (more).
Now Arthur's Seat
Sall (shall) be my bed (burial place),
The sheets sall ne'er be 'filed by me;
Saint Anton's well sall be my drink;
Since my true Love has forsaken me.
Marti'mas wind, when wilt thou blaw (blow),
And shake the green leaves aff the tree?
O gentle Death, when wilt thou come?
For of my life I am wearìe.
'Tis not the frost, that freezes fell,
Nor blawing snaw's (snow) inclemencie,
'Tis not sic cauld (such cold) that makes me cry;
But my Love's heart grown cauld to me.
When we cam in by Glasgow toun,
We were a comely sicht (sight)to see;
My Love was clad in the black velvèt,
And I mysel in cramasie (crimson).
But had I wist (known), before I kissed,
That love had been sae ill to win,
I had lock'd my heart in a case o' gowd (gold),
And pinn'd it wi' a siller (silver) pin.
And O! if my young babe were born,:
And set upon the nurse's knee;
And I mysel were dead and gane,
And the green grass growing over me![2]

The Water is Wide

Some popular lyrics for "The Water is Wide" are within the book Folk Songs For Solo Singers, though many versions have been printed and sung.

The water is wide, I can-not cross o'er.
And neither have I the wings to fly.
Build me a boat that can carry two,
And both shall row, my true love and I.
A ship there is and she sails the seas.
She's laden deep, as deep can be;
But not so deep as the love I'm in
And I know not if I sink or swim.
I leaned my back up against a young oak
Thinking he were a trusty tree
but first he bended and then he broke
Thus did my love prove false to me.
O love is handsome and love is kind
Bright as a jewel when first it's new
but love grows old and waxes cold
And fades away like the morning dew.
And fades away like the morning dew.

The Water is Wide (Round)

: The Water is Wide

I Cannot get over
Nor have I Wings
With which to-o-o fly
O-o-h give me a boat
That can carry Two
We both shall Row
My friend and I-i-I

(repeat twice in parts with one part higher than the other and then sing in round with group two beginning to sing at the word 'Nor')

Recent renditions


"O Waly, Waly" has been a popular choice for arrangements by classical composers, in particular Benjamin Britten, whose arrangement for voice and piano was published in 1948. John Rutter uses it for the Third Movement in his "Suite for Strings" (1973).[3]

The tune is often used for the hymn "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" by Isaac Watts.[4][5] It is also the tune for John Bell's "When God Almighty came to Earth" (1987)[6] and F. Pratt Green's "An Upper Room did our Lord Prepare" (1974)[7]. Additionally, Hal H. Hopson used the tune for his work "The Gift of Love". Hopson also wrote Christian lyrics to The Water is Wide, which are often performed by church choirs.

Mack Wilberg has arranged the tune to "Thou Gracious God" by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., which is performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in the album Peace Like a River.


Classical singers who have recorded "O Waly, Waly" include Sir Thomas Allen (English baritone), Janet Baker (English mezzo-soprano), Ian Bostridge (English tenor), Sarah Brightman (English soprano), Alfred Deller (English counter-tenor), Anthony Rolfe Johnson (English tenor), Karl Scully (Irish Tenor), Anthony Kearns (Irish tenor), Richard Lewis (English tenor), Felicity Lott (English soprano), Benjamin Luxon (English bass-baritone), Derek Lee Ragin (American countertenor), Daniel Taylor (Canadian counter-tenor), Robert Tear (Welsh tenor), Frederica von Stade (American mezzo-soprano), Carolyn Watkinson (English mezzo-soprano), Scott Weir (American lyric tenor), Edith Wiens (Canadian soprano), Kathleen Ferrier (English contralto) and Teddy Tahu Rhodes (New Zealand baritone).

The Library of Congress audio archives contain a recording of the American composer Samuel Barber singing this tune and accompanying himself on piano in a recital broadcast from the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia on December 26, 1938.

"The Water is Wide" has also been recorded countless times, with popular renditions by Angie Aparo, The Highwaymen, The Seekers, Peter, Paul and Mary (titled "There is a Ship"), The Cowboy Junkies, Bob Dylan, Fred Neil, Pete Seeger, Rangers, Joan Baez, Enya, Steeleye Span, Karla Bonoff, James Taylor, Laura Wood, John Gorka, Bob McCarthy, Daniel Rodriguez, Luka Bloom, Steve Goodman, Eva Cassidy, Rory Block and Tom Chapin. Axel Schiøtz, tenor with Herman D. Koppel piano acc. recorded it in Copenhagen on May 7, 1951. It was released on the 78 rpm record His Master's Voice X 8009.

Mark Knopfler recorded an instrumental version of "The Water is Wide" following the death of musician Chet Atkins, who collaborated with Knopfler in several musical projects.

Fingerstyle guitarist Edward Gerhard recorded "The Water is Wide" for his Virtue Records CDs, "Counting the Ways: A Collection of Love Songs (VRD1922)" and "The Live Album (VRD1924)." A signature piece, "The Water is Wide" is a mainstay of Gerhard's concert performances.

The lyrics vary from period to period and from singer to singer.

The Kingston Trio released a version under the title "The River is Wide" in 1961. The New Christy Minstrels recorded this same melody in 1963 with entirely different lyrics, arranged by Randy Sparks and retitled "Last Farewell"[disambiguation needed ]. Maura Shaftoe recorded a version of this song under the title "O Waly Waly" on the 2003 album Some Other Time.

Roger McGuinn of the Byrds recorded the song on his first solo album (1973).

Sir Cliff Richard has a version on his 1982 album Now You See Me, Now You Don't.

Neil Young wrote new, environmentally themed lyrics to the tune, and recorded it as "Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)" on his 1990 album Ragged Glory.

Karla Bonoff recorded a version that is included on the 1991 soundtrack for the U.S. television program thirtysomething.

French singer Renaud helped make the tune famous among French-speaking countries. He wrote pacifist lyrics to the song "La ballade nord-irlandaise" (the Northern-Irish Ballad) for his 1991 album Marchand de cailloux, evoking the troubles of Northern Ireland.

The American-born Taiwanese artist Leehom Wang included a rendition of this song on his 1995 debut album, Love Rival Beethoven.

Claire Pelletier, a Québécoise singer, sings "Trop loin l'Irlande" on her album "Murmures d'histoire" (1996). Marc Chabot wrote the French lyrics.

In the late 1990s Jewel, Sarah McLachlan, and the Indigo Girls collaborated on a version of the song in concert on the Lilith Fair tour.

American jazz artist Charles Lloyd recorded The Water Is Wide, a CD released in 2000 on ECM Records with Lloyd (tenor saxophone) John Abercrombie (guitar), Brad Mehldau (piano), Larry Grenadier (double-bass), and Billy Higgins (drums). The Charles Lloyd Quartet released another version of the song on the Mirror CD (2010), with Lloyd (tenor saxophone), Jason Moran (piano), Reuben Rogers (bass), and Eric Harland (drums).

The Swedish-Irish American Laura Wood, well known for her 12-string guitar playing, arranged and recorded a Celtic-rock version in the year 2000 on her album South Station Slide after performing earlier versions with Lena Spencer of Caffè Lena (in Saratoga Springs, New York) in the late 1970s.

Charlotte Church, the Welsh child soprano, recorded a popularized rendition of this song on her 2001 album Enchantment.

Eva Cassidy's version was released posthumously on her 2003 album American Tune.

Chloë Agnew, the youngest member of Celtic Woman, recorded this song for her album Chloë (2002) with the help of composer David Downes.

Runrig, the Scottish Gaelic rock band, recorded this song for their first Access All Areas album (2001).

In 2006, Triniti released the song on their self-titled debut album, as did Órla Fallon on the album of the same name.

Hayley Westenra's album Treasure, released in 2007, contained another version.

Masaaki Kishibe's 2008 album "My Favorites" includes a vocal-less fingerstyle acoustic guitar rendition, instead incorporating the vocal melodies into the guitar melodies.

In film

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez rendered a version of the song for Bob Dylan's 1978 film, Renaldo and Clara.

It was performed by Susanna Hoffs in the film Red Roses and Petrol directed by Tamar Simon Hoffs, as part of the soundtrack.

It was memorably used over the final scenes in Terence Davies' 1988 film Distant Voices, Still Lives as the characters disappear into the darkness.

The song was played repeatedly as part of the soundtrack to the film The River Wild (Universal Pictures, 1994). A version recorded by Cowboy Junkies was used during the end credits.

The lyrics of the song are spoken, just before the assassination scene, by Jesse James' daughter in the 2007 film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

It is also the theme song played throughout the 2001 film The Simian Line.

It is also performed by a blind fiddle player in the 1984 film The Bounty, starring Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson.

It is performed by Yukawa Shione as part of the festival in the 2005 Japanese film "Linda Linda Linda".

It is also played during end credits of the 1996 TV film Homecoming starring Anne Bancroft.

It is also played during the waning minutes of "We Fight for Freedom" the 18-minute film shown at the theater at Mt. Vernon, VA.


External links

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