Sometimes it is best to tell a story by going backwards, and that is what I will do today. Recently, I and two others were asked to prepare ourselves for an offertory piece of music for Pentecost, and though we had wanted to perform something new (for us), it so happened that a group was going to be singing a song whose melody we were planning on doing for the offertory, so instead we were asked to reprise the last offertory we had done together, “The Water Is Wide,” a traditional folk song. Since the last time we had performed the song we started a local congregational webcast and so it was necessary to determine the copyrights for the song, something which ended up being a lot more complicated than I thought it would be, and thus I thought it would be worthwhile to share it with you all, dear readers, because you know how much I love complicated explorations of music ownership and creativity. Let us view “The Water Is Wide” as a case study in how folk songs are themselves far more creative and complicated than is often recognized to be the case.
Like the flautist in our trio who was unable to determine the copyright information for the song, I was able to find the melody and lyrics included in a large collection of public domain works, which meant for our purposes that the song did not have any copyright problems that would prevent us from playing the song on the webcast. That said, the song had been copyrighted in the past and I was unable to determine when it entered the public domain. The version of “The Water Is Wide” that is familiar to audiences was popularized in the United States by folk singer Pete Seeger in a 1958 collection of folk songs, and at this time it was under copyright by Novello & Company, renewed in 1936, having been published by an English folklorist Cecil Sharp in 1906 in a collection of folk songs from Somerset in England that he had edited and adapted to suit his own poetic sense. How it was that a folklorist published a song and then a music publishing company was able to copyright two years later and then renew that copyright almost 25 years later is a bit mysterious to me, but as of 1958 at least the song was still under copyright even though the copyright has expired since then. So far, so good.
How did “The Water Is Wide” come to be in the first place? As it happens, a great deal of the song springs from a “traditional ballad” published widely in the 18th century called “O Waly Waly” (which I pronounce as something like Wally Wally) or something close to that. This particular song enters the publishing records in the 1720s and was reprinted later on. For the record, I found a great deal of the prehistory of this song in an excellent and very thorough analysis here (you should check it out). My own explanation will be simplified, but I wish to give credit to a researcher who went very deep into the complexities of this song. During the time (mostly in the 19th century) when folklorists like the Brothers Grimm were going about and trying to record folk traditions, broadsides like that one were remembered different ways and local variants were recorded. A great many of the songs were sung with floating verses which came from other songs, all of which made the material more complex when it comes to creativity and ownership. The version of “O Waly Waly” that was published contains verses from at least two other folk songs of the late 17th and early 18th century, namely “Arthur’s Seat Shall Be My Bed, or: Love in Despair” and “The Seamans Leave Taken Of His Sweetest Margery.” These particular songs were published first in about 1650 and 1701, respectively.
In creating “The Water Is Wide,” the venerable if complex history of “O Waly Waly” was only part of the mix. Some of the stanzas of the poem come from old ballads with various titles like “The Unfortunate Swain” that apparently have their origin in a broadside published in 1750 called, rather uncreatively, “A New Love Song,” which in fact it was not, mostly being cobbled together from previous songs (including, strikingly enough “O Waly Waly” itself). And despite the poet-compiler’s problems with inconsistent rhyme schemes and other flaws, the song remained popular for decades. Many of these flaws were fixed in a particularly excellent collection published by the English parson and amateur musicologist Sabine Baring-Gould, perhaps best remembered in many circles for his stirring hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers,” which I still sing in church regularly, as it is a part of our own hymnal. And intriguingly enough, the title and first stanza of “The Water Is Wide” also springs from a temperance ballad popular in the early 19th century called “I’m Often Drunk And Seldom Sober,” that had been misremembered by a Somerset woman who strikingly rendered one of the stanzas as “The Water Is Wide,” which scans better than the original versions of “O Waly Waly” that Sharp had been collecting.
And from such disparate raw materials a new old ballad was made. Determining ownership of such a disparate song is, at this remove, a very difficult task. Floating stanzas from one song or another were frequently combined together and published by poets of more or less indifferent quality, these songs were popular for some period but in many cases fell out of the repertoire and were only partly remembered by those who were able to provide fragments of badly remembered lyrics when asked about “old songs.” Few of these songs spring from genuine folk traditions but many of them were early popular songs that were printed on broadsides and composed either for the sake of novelty (in the sense of the rearrangement of familiar elements) or for special occasions (like the coronation of King George IV), and through being sung for decades managed to inveigle themselves into the memory of diverse people, some of whom tidied up and edited the songs in their head in order to scan better, only to be compiled and edited by a folklorist who, like many before and after him, improved the material he received if it did not suit him in the forms in which he received it.
Where do we find creativity in this story? The writers of the various folk ballads sometimes took material from others and changed it or added to it, various people creatively remembered it, and still others created it to make it correspond to their own vision of how the song should go. The song itself appears as a love song, inspired plenty of pieces that were in popular plays during the 18th century and beyond, and was even appropriated a couple of times for folk songs. A great many people, including Pete Seeger, wanted to view this song and portray it as an old folk song, when it had long been commercialized and published in a wide variety of forms and in its contemporary form dates from only the beginning of the 20th century, hardly being old at all, even if some of its elements go back at least as far back as the 1600’s, if not earlier. A great many people along the way can be judged as creative, although it remains somewhat odd that the song was able to be copyrighted in the first place in the 1900’s, given how much of the material had been taken from so disparate a collection of sources, most of whom freely borrowed from each other. Can this be considered part of that disreputable tendency of modern man taking from the commons and seeking to defend a common source of inspiration for many as private property for which they deserved profit? Let us all answer that question for ourselves.