The Water Is Wide (song)

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"The Water Is Wide"

"The Water Is Wide" (also called "O Waly, Waly" or simply "Waly, Waly") is a folk song of Scottish origin. It remains popular in the 21st century. Cecil Sharp published the song in Folk Songs From Somerset (1906).

Themes and construction[edit]

The imagery of the lyrics describes the challenges of love: "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 lyrics say, can "fade away like morning dew."

The modern lyric for "The Water Is Wide" was consolidated and named by Cecil Sharp in 1906 from multiple older sources in southern England, following English lyrics with very different stories and styles but the same meter. Earlier sources were frequently published as broadsheets without music. Performers or publishers would insert, remove, and adapt verses from one piece to another: floating verses are also characteristic of hymns and blues verses. Lyrics from different sources could be used with different melodies of the same metre. Consequently, each verse in the modern song may not have been originally composed in the context of its surrounding verses nor be consistent in theme.


"The Water is Wide" may be considered a family of lyrics with a particular hymn-like tune.[1]

"O Waly Waly" (Wail, Wail) may be sometimes a particular lyric, sometimes a family tree of lyrics, sometimes "Jamie Douglas", sometimes one melody or another with the correct meter, and sometimes versions of the modern compilation "The Water is Wide" (usually with the addition of the verse starting "O Waly, Waly"). Benjamin Britten used the melody and verses of "The Water is Wide" for his arrangement — which does not have the "O Waly, Waly" verse, yet is titled "Waly, Waly". A different melody is used for the song, "When Cockleshells turn Silver Bells"[2] also subtitled "Waly, Waly". Yet another melody for "O Waly, Waly" is associated with the song, "Jamie Douglas"[3] lyric.


A key ancestor is the lyric "Waly, Waly, Gin Love Be Bonny" from Ramsay's "Tea Table Miscellany" (1724), given below. This is a jumble of verses from other lyrics including "Arthur's Seat shall be my Bed" (1701), "The Distressed Virgin" (1633) and the Scottish scandal ballad "Jamie Douglas" (1776).

The use of 'cockleshells' and 'silver bells' in Thomson's version (1725) pre-dates the earliest published "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary" (1744) and may relate to torture.[4]

Some though not all versions of "Jamie Douglas" have the first verse that starts "O, Waly, Waly". Andrew Lang found a variant verse in Ramsay's "Tea Table Miscellany" from a sixteenth-century song.[5]


Predecessors of "The Water is Wide" also influenced lyrics for other folk and popular songs, such as the modern version of the Irish "Carrickfergus" (1960s) and the American "Sweet Peggy Gordan" (1880). The Irish folk song "Carrickfergus" shares the lines 'but the sea is wide/I cannot swim over/And neither have I wings to fly'. This song may 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 not in any known copy of A Bhí Bean Uasal suggesting considerable interplay among all known traditions. The Welsh version is called "Mae'r môr yn faith".[6]

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 Marquis of Douglas to Lady Barbara Erskine.


The modern "The Water Is Wide" was popularized by Pete Seeger in the folk revival. There have been multiple subsequent variations of the song and several names — including "Waly, Waly", "There is a Ship", and "Cockleshells" — which use and re-use different selections of lyrics. The song "Van Diemen's Land" on the album Rattle and Hum by U2 uses a variation of the melody of "The Water Is Wide".[7]

The song "When the Pipers Play," sung by Isla St. Clair on the video of the same name, uses the melody of "The Water is Wide".

Graeme Allwright translated the song into French. It was recorded in Breton language by Tri Yann as "Divent an dour". In 1991, the French singer Renaud recorded it as "La ballade nord-irlandaise" (The Ballad of Northern Ireland). At the Dunkerque carnival, people sing "putain d'Islande" based on the same melody.

Neil Young's "Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)" uses the melody of "The Water is Wide".


Waly, Waly, Gin Love Be Bonny[edit]

The lyrics for "Waly, Waly, Gin Love Be Bonny" from Ramsay's Tea Table Miscellany (1724).

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 wont to gae.
I lean'd my back into an aik (oak),
I thocht it was a trusty tree;
But first it bow'd, and syne (soon) it brak (broke),
Sae my true love did lightly me.

O waly, waly, but love be bonnie (beautiful),
A little time while it is new,
But when 'tis auld (old), it waxeth cauld (cold),
And fades away like the 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 love me mair (more).

Now Arthur Seat shall be my bed,
The sheets shall ne'er be fyl'd by me,
Saint Anton's well shall be my drink,
Since my true love has forsaken me.
Martinmas wind, when wilt thou blaw (blow),
And shake the green leaves off the tree?
O gentle death, when wilt thou come?
For of my life I am weary.

'Tis not the frost, that freezes fell,
Nor blawing snaws (snow) inclemency,
'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 town,
We were a comely sight to see;
My love was clad in the black velvet,
And I my sell in cramasie (crimson).

But had I wist (known), before I kiss'd,
That love had been sae ill to win,
I'd lock my heart in a case of gold,
And pin'd it with a silver pin.
Oh, oh! if my young babe were born,
And set upon the nurse's knee,
And I my sell were dead and gane,
For a maid again I'll never be

The Water Is Wide[edit]

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 cannot get over
Neither have I wings to fly
Give me a boat that can carry two
And both shall row, my love and I
A ship there is and she sails the sea
She's loaded deep as deep can be
But not so deep as the love I'm in
I know not if I sink or swim
I leaned my back against an oak
Thinking it was a trusty tree
But first it bent and then it broke
So did my love prove false to me
I reached my finger into some soft bush
Thinking the fairest flower to find
I pricked my finger to the bone
And left the fairest flower behind
Oh love be handsome and love be kind
Gay as a jewel when first it is new
But love grows old and waxes cold
And fades away like the morning dew
Must I go bound while you go free
Must I love a man who doesn't love me
Must I be born with so little art
As to love a man who'll break my heart
When cockle shells turn silver bells
Then will my love come back to me
When roses bloom in winter's gloom
Then will my love return to me

Jürgen Klos traces the first verse to "I'm Often Drunk And Seldom Sober" (c. 1780), the second to "The Seamans leave taken of his sweetest Margery" (c. 1660), the third to "Oh Waly, Waly, Gin Love Be Bonny" (already 'old' when published in c. 1724), and the fourth to "Hey trollie lollie, love is jolly" (c. 1620.) He could not trace the melody before 1905.[9]


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')

Another version

The water is wide
I cannot get o'er
No wings have I
No wings have I to-o fly
Give me a boat
That will carry two
We both shall row,
my friend and I.

Verse 2:
As I look out
across the sea
a Bright horizon beckons me
And I am called to do my best
and be the most
that I can be.[citation needed]

Another version, from Australia

The Voyage Home

The water is wide, I cannot get o'er
And neither have I wings to fly,
Build me a boat that can carry two
And both shall row, my love and I.

I leaned my back up against an oak,
To find it was a trusty tree,
I found you true, love, when first you spoke,
'tis true you are, and ever shall be.

Our love shines clearly against the storm,
Turns darkest night to brightest day,
Turns turbulent waters to perfect calm,
A blazing lamp to light our way.

Love is the centre of all we see,
Love is the jewel that guides us true,
No matter what, love, you'll stay with me,
No matter what, my love, I'll stay with you.

The water is wide, I cannot get o'er
And neither have I wings to fly,
Build me a boat that can carry two
And both shall row, my love and I.

Another version, from Canada

The water is wide, I cannot 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 sea
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 against a young oak,
Thinking 'twere a trusty tree.
But first it bent and then it 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.

Recent renditions[edit]


"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).[10]

The tune is often used for the hymn "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" by Isaac Watts.[11][12] It is also the tune for John Bell's "When God Almighty came to Earth" (1987)[13] and F. Pratt Green's "An Upper Room did our Lord Prepare" (1974).[14] 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.

Because the melody is consistent with the words of Adon Olam, a prayer closing most modern Jewish services, Susan Colin performed a version with an also-revised prayer.[15] One congregation's choir performed it with the standard Hebrew prayer.[16] One instrumental version is consistent with the stanzas of the prayer.[17]

Oregon has a jazz version of this on their 30th studio album, Lantern.


The song has been recorded by multiple artists. Esther & Abi Ofarim recorded "Oh Waly Waly" in 1963 for their album Songs Der Welt, and for their live concert album in 1969. Esther re-released the song on box-set CD Mein Weg zu mir in 1999.[18]

In popular culture[edit]


The CBS TV series The Unit featured an episode in season 2 titled "The Water is Wide", in which Unit members must disarm a bomb in the office of the Secretary-General of the UN, while their wives seek an alleged POW/MIA soldier in Vietnam.[19]



  1. ^ "Water is Wide". Retrieved 5 November 2021.
  2. ^ "When Cockleshells Turn Silver Bells (Waly, Waly)". Retrieved 5 November 2021.
  3. ^ "Waly, Waly 3". Retrieved 5 November 2021.
  4. ^ "Mary Mary Quite Contrary Nursery Rhyme". Retrieved 5 November 2021.
  5. ^ The Water Is Wide (song) at Project Gutenberg
  6. ^ "Mae'r môr yn faith (SA)". Retrieved 5 November 2021.
  7. ^ "ShieldSquare Captcha". Retrieved 5 November 2021.
  8. ^ Ramsay, Allan (1788). The Tea-table Miscellany, Or, A Collection of Choice Songs, Scots and English (Twelfth ed.). Wilson. p. 170.
  9. ^ "The Water Is Wide The History of a Folksong".
  10. ^ France, John (11 April 2008). "British Classical Music: The Land of Lost Content: John Rutter: Suite for Strings". Retrieved 5 November 2021.
  11. ^ "When I survey the wondrous Cross". Oremus. Archived from the original on 23 March 2011.
  12. ^ Common Praise. Canterbury Press. 2000.
  13. ^ "". Retrieved 5 November 2021.
  14. ^ "Oremus Hymnal: An upper room did our Lord prepare". 3 July 2010. Archived from the original on 3 July 2010. Retrieved 5 November 2021.
  15. ^ "Adon Olam (set to The Water is Wide) by Susan Colin and Robin Paglia-Dennis". YouTube. Retrieved 5 November 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  16. ^ "ADON OLAM - Tune "Water is Wide"". YouTube. Retrieved 5 November 2021.
  17. ^ "The Water Is Wide (Instrumental)". YouTube. Retrieved 5 November 2021.
  18. ^ "Esther Ofarim - Esther and Abi Ofarim - Esther & Abi Ofarim - Ofraim אסתר עופרים".
  19. ^ ""The Unit" the Water is Wide (TV Episode 2007)". 13 February 2007.
  20. ^ "Gerard Way Records New Song for Kevin Smith Horror Film 'Tusk' « the World Famous KROQ". Archived from the original on 12 April 2014. Retrieved 9 April 2014.
  21. ^ "BBC One - Peaky Blinders, Series 2, Episode 3, PJ Harvey - the Water is Wide (Peaky Blinders version)".
  22. ^ "Emma". Retrieved 9 May 2020.

External links[edit]