My Water is Wide (Reworkings of Traditional Lyrics)

The water is wide,
I can’t cross over,
Nor have I wings,
Over which to fly.
Build me a boat,
That carries two,
We both shall row,
My love and I.

Some say that love,
Is like a tree,
When young it’s strong,
To lean up on.
But over time,
It will bend then it will break,
And rot away,
Till it is gone.

Some say that love,
Is like a rose,
The sweetest flower,
When it is new.
But it goes dry,
As it gets old,
And turns to dust,
Like most things do.

But not my love,
My love is forever,
Just like the sea,
So deep and wide.
Within our boat,
That carries two,
We both shall row,
My love and I,
As we each love,
Till end of time.

08.06.10

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Copyright by Minh Tan on listed dated of completion.

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Notes to this poem…

I was creating some guitar and ukulele tabs for the traditional song called The Water is Wide when I had to check up on some lyrics. The version I was referencing by the ladies of the Lilith Fair festivals had flip flopping rhyme schemes among the verses. When I looked for the lyrics, I found there were many others. I have included a few sets below. I wasn’t too surprised there were many versions of the lyrics since this was a traditional song, originating as O Waly, Waly back in the 1600s. However, I didn’t find any set of lyrics particularly cohesive or flowing, to be honest. Picking one or another set to use with the tabs, or even mixing and matching them, wasn’t working for me. That was when I decided to rework my own set.

In my set, it starts out as the traditional song does, talking about trying to traverse a wide body of water. It then laments about love and what happens to it over time, as most popular sets of lyrics for this song did. There’s just a bit more of a narrative flow in mine, with the imagery of a tree and a flower being generally the same as the traditional lyrics. I didn’t stray far where I didn’t have to. However, unlike the original poem which lamented about love, I came back to reaffirm “my love”, whether you want to interpret that as the lover or as the love of the speaker, or alternating as I had intended. I left that a bit ambiguous on purpose to cover both because I wanted to say similar things about both. If you’re in love, you should be able to think of your lover and your love for the person in those terms in that last verse, though the ambiguity is throughout as I also meant that. The original poem didn’t wrap things up so nicely, I thought.

In some of my lines, there are far more syllables than the original. That’s because the way the melody goes, there are a lot of melismas (singing of a single syllable while moving between different notes). I broke up those melismas into full words each having their own note, in some occasions. Some of the traditional lyrics did the same thing for other phrases where the popular versions used melismas instead.

Now, I know the perils of criticizing and reworking “traditional lyrics” that have been around for ages, and pored over by many a great lyricists and songwriters. However, I just wanted to have a set of lyrics I liked to sing this song when I sang it. I figure that if the original lyrics of O Waly, Waly survived the transition to the current The Water is Wide, though, my slight modifications for myself isn’t going to upset anybody much. 🙂

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Popular version of The Water is Wide lyrics

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
and loves a jewel while it is new
but when its old love it growth cold
And fades away like the morning dew.

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Peter Webster version of The Water is Wide lyrics

The water is wide
And I cannot get o’er;
Nor yet have I
The wings to fly;
Bring me a boat
That can carry two
And both shall row –
My love and I.

Down in the meadow
The other day,
Gathering flowers
Both bright and gay,
Gathering flowers,
Both red and blue,
I little thought
What love can do.

I leaned my back
Against an oak,
Thinking it was
A trusty tree,
But first it bent
And then it broke,
Just like my own
False loving be.

Oh love is gentle
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.

There is a ship
And it sails the sea;
It’s loaded deep
As deep can be,
But not so deep
As this love I’m in.
I know not if
I sink or swim.

The water is wide
And I cannot get o’er,
Nor yet have I
The wings to fly;
Bring me a boat
That can carry two
And both shall row –
My love and I.

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