Monday, November 1, 2010

"The Water Is Wide" - The History Of A "Folk Song"

The "Water is Wide" is among of the best and the most popular songs of the Folk Revival era. It has been recorded by countless artists and is usually regarded as an "old Folk song"  But in fact it has a complicated, very interesting and surprising history. I have now tried to reconstruct the story behind this song. The text is a little bit too long for this blog and I've posted it on my website:


    1. make it shorter and something a kid could read i am trying to get only 5 sentence but i cant understand this please change

    2. Hello, Mr. Kloss. Thank you for posting your excellent research on the history of "The Water Is Wide." I immensely enjoyed reading it and navigating through your musical examples. Again, thank you! I've arranged a song that heavily uses "The Water Is Wide" and I'm seeking out all of the information I can find on the origin of the tune. Would you possibly be able to tell me, is it considered to be a "public domain" melody, or who I should get rights from to officially use the tune for legal publishing purposes? I did not see if you had provided this kind of information already in the text of your '"The Water Is Wide" - The History Of A "Folk Song".'

      Thank you!

    3. Thanks for your kind comments.
      I assume that this tune is in the public domain. Sharp's "Folk Songs From Somerset" was published in 1906 and that's more than a hundred years ago.

    4. I have to sing this tomorrow for a choral concert...thanks for the facts!

    5. Exemplary research and presentation! I greatly enjoyed reading your findings. I have loved the song as long as I can remember. At Music Academy in GB I did an arrangement of Britten's version for voice and brass quintet that was much used. And now I conduct choirs in Norway. One of these will soon be visiting Dublin and someone suggested that we take along that "wonderful old Irish song" - The Water is Wide. From your research I gather that it has far more Scottish and English DNA than Irish, though a little daliance with Peggy Gordon left its mark... Incidentally I am an admirer of Percy Grainger's zeal in getting folksingers onto wax. It would have made it more difficult for Sharp to push in a couple of his own lines. But then - they were better?

    6. Thanks a lot for your comments. What I found really noteworthy here was that Sharp has created a new song from the relics of two different older pieces. In this case he was really successful because the result is better than the fragments he had collected. I think he would have been a good songwriter.

    7. Yes, that was really fascinating. By extension it was the same goal motivating the composers who used folksong elements in their works - RVW, Butterworth, et al. - the wish to distill an essence into a new form, and a new medium. I have never felt the need to be as disparaging of the English pastoralists - or "cow-pat school", as they have been dubbed - as they have generally become in the post-war and post-modern era. The melodic structures and most of all tonal modality these composers borrow seem to sit better in an orchestral abstraction than in a salon song for quasi-rural romantics. Here in Norway Grieg has had several generations of purists on his back - the Norwegians call them the "Folk Music Police".
      By the way, I read also your research on Parting Glass and Scarboro' Fair. Absolutely first class, very informative.

    8. Fascinating reading! I stumbled upon your research tonight having forgotten the words to a song I thought I knew ... and it turns out that the song's history is richer and more complex than I imagined. Great job, and thanks very much.

    9. Excellent write-up! I too, stumbled across you work when researching the history of the song's melody.

      I recently acquired a book of folk songs from around the world and have begun researching the history of each one. Digging into "The Water is Wide" quickly brought me to "O waly, waly.

      From there, Google Books provided a publication from 1913 titled "Songs of Britain: A Collection of One Hundred English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish National Songs" (O waly waly is found of pgs. 124-125 - The physical book itself appears to have had an interesting history as it was donated to the Harvard Library in 1919 by US Army Ambulance core driver who died in London the same year (WWI, a likely contributor to his being there).

      Noting the music as presented in the book didn't match any form that I could match to the hundreds of variants now found on youtube, I went back online and came across your article.

      The book has the lyric version matching the 1726 Alan Ramsay 2nd edition "Tea-Table Miscellany. I like this book's reference to the words describing them as "Ancient". The piece itself is simply defined as an "Old Scottish Air". Two other references note that "Waly" is an expression of grief and that "St Antony's well is a spring on Arthurs's seat, Edinburg".

      My guess on the melody as presented in the "Songs of Britain" is that it may also have been borrowed or inspired by other pieces of the time. Your research has given me some ideas on where to turn to next.

      Thanks again for a great write-up.

    10. When I was a teenager growing up in the San Fernando Valley in the 1970's, my friend's mom, Sylvia McKelligott, had some relatives visit from New Zealand. At the time, I had never heard "The Water is Wide" before. One of Sylvia's relatives taught me to play, on my guitar, a song that she said her grandfather had taught her as a child. Her grandfather, who had been an immigrant to N.Z. (I believe from Scotland), had told her that the song had once been a hymn sung by believers of a then illegal, heretical "unitarian" church (for example, they denied the divinity of Jesus Christ and denied that God was a trinity, and believed that the Bible was mostly allegorical) that had secretly existed since at least the 1600's or 1700's. I did not write down the verses but later recognized most of them and the melody when I first heard "The Water is Wide" performed many years later. The version she taught me included most of the same verses but also included some slightly different verses (as best as I can recall):

      Though life is fey, and can be cruel,
      Life is a jewel, when first it is new.
      But it waxes cold, once it grows too old,
      then fades away, like the morning dew.

      The water is wide, we cannot get over.
      The seas won't part, the waves don't dry.
      If we build a strong bridge, and though the waters may pour,
      then more could cross, to the distant shore.

    11. Thanks for your comment. That's very interesting!

    12. I think it is widely speculated that Dylan heard a version of Waly Waly on a record by Jeannie Robertson at Joan Baez's house in California in summer 1963 and that this inspired Lay Down Your Weary Tune.
      Very interesting essays, thank you.

    13. What a wonderful analysis! Thanks for this.

      Do you know anything about the verse:

      The seagulls wheel, they turn and dive,
      The mountain stands beside the sea.
      This world we know turns round and round,
      And all for them - and you and me.

      It seems to be mostly associated with Pete Seeger, and it sounds like the sort of thing he'd write. Is it his addition, or are there antecedents?

    14. Thank you for your comment.
      Yes, this looks as if it was written by Pete Seeger. But I can't say when he added this verse to the song. As far as I know there are no similar antecedents and I don't think it fits to the other verses.

    15. I love this kind of micro-history research. I learned a great deal especially about the evolution and many faceted journey of the various lyrics that grew from the basic theme of this "lost love" lament. Three dialog comments. It is great that you break the long piece into sections, but I wonder if you might not give the sections titles so that there is a sense of a subject being circumscribed by the section (this is coming from a college professor). Second, this piece is very largely a about the lyrics, with only incidental comments here and there on the melody. A clear discussion of the melody would be useful, in my opinion, as it is just a historically powerful as the evolving journey of the lyrics. Third, I think this history is incomplete without some word about the melody's powerful journey in Christian hymnology. Despite the Pete Seeger example, I suspect it is nevertheless true that the most significant reception history of this song in terms of quantity of performances lies in the church appropriation of the melody for several hymns that are sung all the time still today. We sang Hal Hopson's 1972 adaptation today in our Swedenborgian congregation in northern California. Can look up "O Waly Waly" in to see its many flowerings in contemporary spirituality.

    16. Thank you very much for your comments and additions. I really appreciate that. At the moment I am still not as familiar with Christian hymnology as I would like to. And yes, I should say more about the tune, that's correct. But I am still searching for the original source of thus tune.

    17. Hi Jürgen, I greatly enjoyed your analysis of Oh Waly Waly, I record mostly folk songs on my YouTube channel ( and sometimes write articles about them on my blog ( After reading your articles I now know what real research looks like, Thanks.