The Water Is Wide is a beautiful, traditional song. How traditional? It's out of copyright so I can post it here:
T:The water is wide
Z:Transcribed by Frank Nordberg - http://www.musicaviva.com
z A (3GFG|"F"A4-"Bb"AG (3FFD|"F"C4 z2 FE|
w:The wat-er is wide,_ I can-not get o'er, Neith-er
"Dm"F4-FG A(B/A/)|"Gm"G4-"C"GG AB|"Am"c4-cB/A/ G<F|
w:have_ I wings to_ fly._ Give me a boat_ that can car-ry
"Bb"A4-AG FD|"C7"C4-CC (3DFG|"F Bb"F8-|"F"F4|]
w:two,_ and both shall cross,_ my true love and I.
W:The water is wide, I cannot get o'er,
W:Neither have I wings to fly.
W:Give me a boat that can carry two,
W:and both shall cross, my true love and I.
W:I leaned back against an oak,
W:Thinking it was a mighty tree,
W:But first it bent and then it broke,
W:So did my love prove false to me.
W:I put my hand on some soft bush,
W:Thinking the sweetest flower to find,
W:I pricked my finger to the bone,
W:And left the sweetest flower behind.
W:Oh, love is handsome and love is kind,
W:Gay as a jewel when it's new,
W:But love grows old and waxes cold,
W:And fades away like morning dew.
W:The water is wide...
Can't read it? It's in ABCnotation, a cool text based system for writing melodies that produces sheet music when you put it in an ABC converter like this one. So the output ends up like:
Click to embiggen!
You may be pleased to learn that the Newton Family Singers will not be singing "I put my hand on some soft bush" in front of our friends and neighbors. In fact, this song is very old and there are many variations of lyrics that have been sung to this melody.
The melody itself seems borrowed from "Jamie Douglas" a ballad of unhappy love that is often identified as Child Ballad 204; one of 305 English and Scottish ballads collected by Francis James Child and published between 1882 and 1892. Child was a brilliant Bostonian and the first person given the title Professor of English by Harvard University; in seeking to preserve poetry from Great Britain, he became the Alan Lomax of sheet music.
Here's "Jamie Douglas":
The title “The Water Is Wide” and the modern lyrics date from 1906 when Cecil Sharp assimilated lyrics, probably from multiple sources, into the song.
As usual, we need to thank Pete Seeger for popularizing the song during the mid-20th century folk revival. Emmylou Harris and Teddy Thompson (son of Richard and Linda) performed the song at Seeger’s 90th birthday concert (they are backed up by Kate and Anna McGarrigle and Martha and Rufus Wainwright, among others).
The English composer Benjamin Britten, known for writing The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, wrote an arrangement for The Water is Wide for piano and voice (1948). Here he plays piano accompaniment for singer Peter Pears (Britten’s life partner).
Okay, so we’ve established some pedigree for “The Water Is Wide” and clearly it’s a beautiful melody. So beautiful, in fact, that composers and songwriters went to that well quite often. Strap on your seatbelts… here we go:
The British composer John Rutter’s Suite For Strings (1971) uses the melody in the 3rd movement
A number of Christian hymns borrow the melody, including “: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “An Upper Room did our Lord Prepare,” “The Gift of Love,” and “Thou Gracious God, Whose Mercy Lends” (that last one sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir).
In 1963, The New Christy Minstrels released a familiar tune as “Last Farewell”:
Bob Dylan wrote “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” around a now familiar melody, performed here by The Byrds:
Similarly, U2 credits The Edge with the words and music to “Van Diemen’s Land” from 1988’s Rattle and Hum but, well…
And now, with feedback, Neil Young’s environmentally concerned “Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)” (the singing is quite nice once you get past the first minute of electric guitar):
In 1991, the French singer Renaud recorded “La ballade nord-irlandaise” (The Ballad of Northern Ireland”), introducing the tune widely to the francophone world.
Okay, back to “The Water Is Wide.” During the Lilith Fair concerts, Sarah MacLachlan, Jewel and the Indigo Girls collaborated on a version of the song:
Check out the a capella at 3:07
As someone (maybe) once said, “Good artists borrow; great artists steal.” Or maybe there are melodies that burrow into our heads and we can’t let go. If so, this seems to be one of them.
Jack Cheng directs the Clemente Course in Dorchester, excavates in the Middle East, and writes in Waban, MA.