“The Water is Wide”

August 7, 2013 • 4:52 am

The Water is Wide” is an ineffably beautiful song that began as a 17th-century English folk ballad, “O Waly, Waly”. To my mind it’s the most beautiful of all English songs of its genre, and it’s held up perfectly over the past four centuries.  It’s revival is largely attributed to Pete Seeger (his version here), who recorded it on an early album.

Since then there have been innumerable modern versions and covers, but I find the most plaintive to be that of James Taylor, which involves a couple of key changes:

Here’s a 1979 recorded version by Karla Bonoff, with Kenny Edwards on bass, Bonoff and James Taylor on acoustic guitars, Taylor and J. D. Souther on background vocals, and, of all things, Garth Hudson on accordian.

Finally, Israeli singer Esther OFarim sings the original melody and lyrics (in modern English). As you see, the tune hasn’t changed.

46 thoughts on ““The Water is Wide”

  1. Off topic.

    Jerry, your “Pinker vs. the “scientism” canard”
    post doesn’t seem to work.

  2. Beautiful versions–all of them–of a beautiful song. A slight correction: the James Taylor version doesn’t change keys. It is in F throughout. It does, however, have some very interesting (and non=folky) chords.

  3. You are right, it’s a beautiful tune and James Taylor really has a special way with songs.

    It is for me, however, interminably linked with a hymn in the Church of Scotland Hymn book so always has religious overtones. 🙁

  4. Despite the group being the very essence of “corporate folk,” I have always quite loved the Peter, Paul & Mary version–though that may be simply nostalgia on my part.

  5. But do look up Wikipedia on Waly Waly – that business about ‘four centuries’ really isn’t right. The origin of the song is Scottish. The version (words) sung by all the singers you list (with the partial exception of the Israeli singer, who adds a Scottish first verse), as well as that set by Britten, is based on the version that really came about as the result of the editing, back in 1906, long before Peter Seeger was about, of Cecil Sharp, who made it out of various extant versions and wrote down one of the melodies (for like most folk-songs there are a variety of melodies it could be sung to), one that seems to have been used in Somerset.
    Britten also made an orchestral accompaniment, and though I’m not all that fond of the tenor Ian Bostridge, he does a good job in this case, and the accompaniment creates the sense of the slow swell of the sea.

  6. I like the last one best….perhaps because it seems most like how I imagine the original should be. 🙂

    1. Oh yes. Defintely agree. I like the last one much better than the others. Musically it reminds me a bit of Roger Whitaker, who I have liked since I was young. It seems likely his folk style was inspired at least somewhat by this type of music.

  7. Karla Bonoff’s version might be the reason for the resurgence…. it was used as the background music to Gary’s funeral on Thirty-something, and got a lot of attention at the time. Garth Hudson’s accordian is genius.

  8. I just don’t get James Taylor. To me, he’s always sounded whiney and nasal. To each his own, I guess.

  9. A lovely song. 🙂

    I have long wondered if “Greensleeves” might be the best song ever written, as it still charms us, yet was composed no later than 1580.

    1. I’d like to see (hear) some present-day balladeer (e.g. Adele) do a version of a Dowland song and see how long it takes everyone to notice that its 400 years old. Ballads haven’t really changed much.

  10. What a wonderful reminder of that gorgeous song! I used to sing it, when I was doing that sort of thing. And the finest arrangement was written by Benjamin Britten. I’m not a rabid fan of Britten but he did a collection of old folk songs that are a joy to sing, and “Water Is Wide” is perhaps the most enchanting.

  11. This song was supremely important to me after a breakup from hell about 12 years ago, and I discovered it singing in a jazz chorus.

    The melody should never have been adapted into a bland hymn as it was in the Unitarian hymnal (and probably earlier ones. It cheats the listener out of the basic poignancy of the original. Hymn writers can use bach or drinking songs, but this should have been left alone.

  12. Taylor, like Bob Dylan, does not inspire me at all. Every person (I have met) who adores their music has a pedestrian, if not vulgar, understanding of music.

    Joan Baez, Peter Paul and Mary, and Joni Mitchel, among other folksy types, are well worth a listen.

    1. Vulgar and folk are pretty much equivalent terms.

      All pop music is pedestrian — that’s why it sells. The fact that you can enjoy it doesn’t say anything about whether you have a strong understanding of music (theory).

      Sheesh, can you not enjoy a beer or a cheap glass of wine or must it always be ’82 Lafitte or ’90 Beaucastel?

  13. This may be unfortunate, but I always seem to tune out when I hear the folk/gospel water songs — “Wade in the Water” or “The Water is Wide” or the dozens of river crossing and Jordan River songs. They are inevitably linked to religion and faith. It’s crossing over to a spiritual life or baptism and renewal in the Christ. It’s a shame so many beautiful songs carry the Christian worldview with them.

    1. But water is wide is an entirely secular song about lost love. As I noted in a comment above I felt that when it was later turned into a hymn , I think it actually degraded the song.

  14. I couldn’t listen to any of the proffered examples beyond a few bars, but the tune and some of the lyrics rang a bell. I am familiar with it from the song “Carrickfergus” as done by Van Morrison with the Chieftains in 1988 or 1989. I highly recommend a listen (youtube).

    I did find 2 versions of “The Water is Wide” that I liked, an audio from a 1963 Beers Family recording: http://www.floridamemory.com/audio/cd2.php

    (scroll down to selection 9, or listen to some of the other old artists on this recording).

    The other (since it is a Scottish song) is a 2001 recording by the Scottish group Runrig, also available on Youtube.

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