STLT#410, Surprised by Joy

A dozen years ago, I sat in a workshop at a UU Musicians Network conference talking about music as pastoral care.

The leader (whose name escapes me now) talked about her prison ministry. She told us that she goes to a women’s prison, and one of the first thing she has them do is sing “The Water Is Wide.” She lines it out, with them repeating each line back. The women start singing the first verse…

The water is wide, I cannot get o’er
Neither have I wings to fly
Give me a boat that can carry two
And both shall cross my true love and I

…and the women stiffen up a bit, because the last thing they need is a happy love song. But she makes sure they know the melody, and then has them sing the second verse…

I lean’d my back against an oak
Thinking it was a mighty tree
But first it bent and then it broke
So did my love prove false to me

…and they begin to soften, and feel, and by the time they finish the song (which continues in the same vein) they are ready to talk, and share their hard, heartbreaking stories, and begin to heal.

I tell you this story because “The Water Is Wide” – the Anglicized version of “O Waly Waly”, is the tune upon which our lyrics today are set.

A happy, joyous, love-eternal sort of lyric.

Set to a he-done-me-wrong song.

Look at these lyrics, knowing the song’s origins:

Surprised by joy no song can tell,
no thought can compass, here we stand
to celebrate eternal love,
to reach for one another’s hand.

Beyond all other gifts is this,
best gift, alone to mortals given;
the love of parent, lover, friend
attunes our hearts to bliss of heaven.

Faith, hope, and love here come alive; life’s deepest treasure is made known when in forgiving, giving all, insep’rably, two are as one.

Doesn’t sing the same, does it?

In other hymnals, this lyric – by Erik Routley – is set to the Melcombe tune, a more rigid, less folky tune. I suspect there are even better melodies in that this could be set to. I don’t have a hymnal handy at the moment as I’m sitting in an Oneonta, NY, coffee shop, but I bet one or more of you will find more suitable tunes before I get home.

I think the lyrics are fine – and I suspect if I ever did a wedding and the couple wanted a hymn, I’d steer them in this direction.

But I’d definitely change it up.

1 Comment

  1. The last lines of each the two stanzas above of the English version of “O Waly Waly” have only one-syllable words, giving a simple strength and directness to the song (especially “So did my love prove false to me”, almost shocking even when you know it’s coming). Neither stanza has a single word of more than two syllables. One reason the new words don’t “sing the same” is that they do not have the same strength and directness; “insep’rably” is the worst example. I’m told that Gaelic poetry/folk tune lyrics have a lot of spondees and even strings of strong syllables. Sometimes this can be re-created in English; Thomas Moore’s “last rose” in “The Last Rose of Summer” (words made to fit to a pre-existing folk tune) is a wonderful and successful example. I’m not sure I can think of a tune that would redeem “insep’rably”, although it would be a shame not to use the poem when some of the other lines are good.


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