Behind the Meaning of the Nursery Rhyme “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”

“Row, Row, Row Your Boat” is one of the most famous nursery rhymes, but its origins are somewhat of a mystery.

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Meaning Behind the Song

“Row, Row, Row Your Boat” is a folk song that was penned by American author and teacher Eliphalet Oram Lyte and was first published in 1852. The most commonly sung version features lyrics row row row your boat / Gently down the stream / Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily / Life is but a dream. However, there have been several adaptations over the years, inserting references to crocodiles, lions, giraffes and polar bears in the stanzas.

Additional renditions range from sinister (Row, row, row your boat / Gently down the stream / Throw your teacher overboard / And listen to her scream) to lighthearted like the original (Row, row, row your boat / Gently down the creek / If your boat fills with water / Then you’ve got a leak).

Though Lyte is credited with writing the song, it has yet to be determined if he did in fact write the first version that was published in 1852. In the book, The Franklin Square Song Collection released in 1881, Lyte is credited as the author. In the 1997 book, The Americana Song Reader, author William Studwell explains that the version published in 1852 has similar lyrics to the song we know and love today, but notes that the melody was very different.

“Another printing two years later kept the same lyrics, but offered yet another tune,” he writes. “A printing in 1881 finally got around to putting the present form of the lyrics and the present melody together. So, like the round in performance, there was a conflicting series of individual actions before all was settled in the end.”

Bing Crosby is among the popular song’s most famous fans, incorporating it into a medley with other songs from the 1700s and 1800s on part one of his album, 101 Gang Songs, released in 1961. He also performed “Row” live at his famous show at London Palladium in 1976 and incorporated the live recording on his vinyl, Bing Crosby Live at the London Palladium, released the same year. He also performed it with Ella Fitzgerald during a live medley at the Hollywood Palace in 1967.

Celine Dion and Justin Timberlake are among the modern superstars who have performed spoofs of the classic tune.

Bing Crosby in 1950 (Photo: Donaldson Collection)

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