“The Water Is Wide,” Joan Baez, changing the lyrics, and other folk music things… and marriage equality
The water is wide – I cannot 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.
It’s an old song that dates back anywhere from a century to a half-millennium, depending on your source. My best guess would be that it’s even older than that, or at least the melody is. Such beautiful, memorable melodies generally are so old, they reside somewhere within us, like the instinct to make friends or have faith in something. The words have changed many times, as words often do, and in the changing words, so has the meaning changed. Evolved, perhaps is a better word.
Our music does that, as much as we do, frequently before we do, leading the way. What was originally written as a hymn about heaven, to be sung on Sunday morning, became an anthem of perseverance toward justice and a fair wage on Earth when it was sung on a picket line in Charleston, SC. Then it was sung in a workshop in Tennessee and the words changed it into a song about working together for a better world. That same song was picked up and sung, with even more words, to win civil rights for African-Americans, then freedom for students in China, then defiance against Wall Street in New York City in the 21st Century. (I’m talking about “We Shall Overcome” here, because its history is well-documented, its evolution easy to follow.)
It wasn’t the song that changed. It was the people who sang it. They called on it when they needed it. When the words felt out of date, they added new ones. But the core of the song remained the same core that was there when the song had a verse that said “I’ll be like Him someday.”
Folks outside of the folk-song-obsessed world I inhabit (a very small world, indeed) may think it’s a stretch to compare “The Water Is Wide” with “We Shall Overcome.” But dally in folk songs for half a moment, and you quickly realize the melodies, lyrics, and charge are all the same. What drives people to sing at all, always comes from a need to be heard – whether it’s being heard by a lover or a politician. It’s a plea to connect, to be understood, to be loved and respected, to be equal somehow.
So I find myself ruminating on “The Water Is Wide.” It’s been hanging in my head since I saw Joan Baez, the Indigo Girls, the Shadowboxers, and Dirk Powell play through a stellar delivery of it a couple weeks ago, at Chastain Park in Atlanta, Georgia. What an incredible show that was, goes without saying. If I were a list-keeping person, I’d put it up there toward the top.
I came to know this old Irish folk song back when my age was in the single digits. Decades ago, before I knew anything about anything, really. I barely knew what Ireland was, or where, much less what it meant that I had great grandparents who had been born and raised there. I didn’t understand the song at all back then. Years later, I had to sing it to audition for All State Chorus, and thought it was a lovely little song about some kind of antiquated romance. Certainly it can be taken that way. “Love grows old and waxes cold” doesn’t mean a whole lot to the first-hand knowledge of a teenager.
But here’s the thing about a song. While politicians debate the validity of my love relationship, that song is there – a gift from history – welcoming me to sing it. Hearing Joan and company sing it shed newer light. Suddenly, the song has morphed from a sweet song of lamenting love to something much more broad and allegorical.
It returned to the front of my mind yesterday morning, as, for the however-manyeth day in a row, I tuned into the Supreme Court’s blog to find out whether or not the highest court in the land saw fit to recognize folks like me as equal citizens to our siblings and bosses and the strangers who read our blogs. Needless to say, hearing yesterday’s SCOTUS pronouncements were an incredibly personal experience. My eyes widened. I threw my hand across my mouth. I held my breath. I smiled. I cried. I sat here, where I’m sitting now – the place where I spend hours a day spewing thoughts and ideas onto a computer screen – and held my tongue. I sat here and absorbed, crying, with my hand over my mouth. It was unbelievable, as in – I had a hard time believing reality just shifted that strongly with just some words on a screen: “DOMA is unconstitutional”.
Then my brow furrowed as I remembered I live in a state where, like more than two dozen other states, LGBT people can be fired for being LGBT people. We can be denied housing. Can be denied rights to our own children. And so on. This decision impacts none of that, at least not directly, not immediately, not where I live. It doesn’t make it so the child my partner and I have spent the past more-than-a-year trying to conceive will have equal protection under the law with both of its parents. It won’t make it so that I can have any rights to the child without suing the person I’ve chosen to spend the rest of my life with, for custody, in a thousands-of-dollars legal proceeding.
I celebrated, though, thinking of all my friends in New York and Washington and elsewhere – 13 states now – whose legal marriages now afford them 1,138 federal rights and benefits – the same rights and benefits automatically showered upon anyone else when their wedding day is done. But those rights are not afforded to couples in 37 states, and will not be available without more incredibly expensive legal proceedings. And so on.
All the while, as I was sitting here processing all this information, the internet showed photos of couples embracing, old women crying with joy, young men looking hopeful and proud. The song came back in:
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.
Folk music. Sometimes it’s like a message in a bottle, shipped across generations and national borders, hand to hand, for centuries. A song is shared in a moment that calls for it, between a mother and a child. Between a child and a classroom. Between a stranger and an audience. Between two people in a whispered moment, or between thousands in an irrevocable declaration. The same has gone for all the good freedom songs, all the good love songs. Love songs and freedom songs, after all, are pretty much the same thing – they’re both reaching for some reassurance that it’s not all a waste of time, that someone else notices and is right there with us.
That’s why we seek freedom, and it’s also why we fall in love.