Monday, April 17, 2023

Folk Song for January 2024: The Water is Wide (Oh Waly, Waly)

"The Water Is Wide" (also called "O Waly, Waly" or "Waly, Waly") is a  Scottish folk song that was also known in southern England. “Waly” means “wail” or “woe.” 

Folklorist Cecil Sharp included the song (compiled from various versions) in Folk Songs From Somerset (1906). There were, in fact, so many different versions of this song, that it can be considered a “family of lyrics.” Since it has “grandparent” songs (such as the ballad “Jamie Douglas”), it also has “cousins” based on those earlier sources (such as “Carrickfergus and "Peggy Gordon"); and there are also “descendants,” including the modern version of “The Water is Wide,” which was popularized by Pete Seeger.

The melody has been arranged by classical composers, such as Benjamin Britten and John Rutter (it is the third movement in Rutter's Suite for Strings). It has also been used for Christian hymns, such as John Bell’s “When God Almighty Came to Earth; and other hymns (such as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”) can be sung to this tune.

 Which Version to Sing?

Like so many folk songs, there are versions and verses that are family-friendly, and there are others that are not. Even Pete Seeger’s version has verses that you may prefer not to sing with children; please preview.

Here are the lyrics as sung by Karla Bonoff (a favourite version of Advisory member Leslie Laurio). 

1.   1. The water is wide, I can’t cross o’er

and neither have I wings to fly

Give me a boat that can carry two

And both shall row, my love and I

2. Oh, love is gentle and love is kind

The sweetest flower when first it’s new

But love grows old and waxes cold

And fades away like morning dew.

(instrumental bridge)

3. There is a ship and she sails the sea,

She’s loaded deep as deep can be,

But not as deep as the love I’m in,

I know not how I sink or swim.

4. The water is wide, I can’t cross o’er

And neither have I wings to fly.

Give me a boat that can carry two,

And both shall row, my love and I.

And both shall row, my love and I.

Where does the “Waly, Waly” fit in?

The original Scottish words to the song can be read online (such as on Wikipedia), and they include these words of lament:

O Waly, waly up the bank,
And waly, waly doun the brae,
And waly, waly, yon burn-side,
Where I and my love wont to gae.
I lean'd my back into an aik,
I thocht it was a trusty tree;
But first it bow'd, and syne it brak,
Sae my true love did lightly me.

But modern English versions do not include them.

Other Video Links

Advisory member Donna-Jean Breckenridge likes this version by James Taylor.

Donna-Jean also likes this recording by Joan Baez, from the album Farewell Angelina. 

Here is Pete Seeger's recording, from the album Pete Seeger Now. This is a good one for singing (and humming) along. 

Finally, one that’s a bit more upbeat: Bob Dylan with Joan Baez, recorded in 1975.

Our helpful intro post is sure to liven up your folk song adventures.

For more information on our folk songs, and for Amazon affiliate 
links to purchase individual songs, see our AO Folk Songs page.
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