(O’er) The Sea in the British Isles, Long Before I was Born and Many Times After.
You cannot step into the same river twice – Heraclitus.
The ocean contains infinite droplets, collected from a multitude of tributaries. It hosts an eternal cycle ‑ rain, creek, river, bay and sea – water lifted by the sun before falling back to earth again.
The rain. Maybe I first heard flecks of this tune centuries before my birth as it was sung with lust and vigour in some damp Scottish public house in Wick or Castleton or Glamis by an unknown ancestor over dark ale and log fire.
The creek. The song’s history, like so many folk songs, could fill a small book. It dates back to a tune we now call The Water is Wide. It carries countless lyrical and melodic variations with its original composer lost in the sea mists of the long, long ago. At some point The Water is Wide made the journey it sings of, crossing from Scotland to Ireland via the North Channel and morphing into a composition called Carrickfergus.
The river. I heard The Water is Wide as a small child when my father went through his Seekers phase, the soft melody and lilting lyrics perfectly accessible to my young ears. Life at home was often difficult but when he played his records there was a lull in the chaos, a soothing. When the music played, something eased.
The bay. It was the first song I worked out by ear and the first song I performed to an audience. I was 16. I didn’t sing, but sat nervously strumming my guitar, a no-name, hand-me-down with a thin sound and easy action. This instrument too, was a first. I accompanied Kate, my drama teacher, as she sang it for my classmates. We were in a long wood cabin, in the foggy hills of Launching Place, on a break from workshopping a high school play. As she did so many times, Kate soothed my nerves of doubt by offering enthusiastic belief in me and my ability to take on something new.
The ocean. The Water is Wide reappeared a year later in the form of Carrickfergus on a Bryan Ferry record. A sale at Brashs. Thought I’d give it a go. Carrickfergus was the highlight of this heartbreaking album, a tune of transmutation, drunken courage, deep longing, love and death.
Infinite droplets. A quarter of a century later, I hear this song again, rising spontaneously through the eucalypts as my dear friend’s ravaged and wilted body is carried solemnly out of her home. She had died that morning. A small group of friends gathered to see her leave. Through the tears of this final goodbye, one of us sang, through the birdsong and spring sunshine, easy and soft.
The water is wide
I can’t cross over
Nor have I wings so I can fly
Build me a boat
That can carry two
And both shall row, my love and I.
The rain, again. Carrickfergus ends in sickness and in death. The thin bravado of the “handsome rover” is punctured by the admission that he is sick, and his days are numbered. His longing, though does not cease, and with his last drunken, dying words calls for the young men around him (and perhaps his own youth) to lift him up, lay him down and spirit him away, like the rain and the wide ocean he sings of; ever rising, falling, rising and falling again.
Stephen Andrew will be part of Stereo Stories In Concert on Saturday 14 September at Write Around The Murray in Albury, New South Wales. More details.