The Meaning Behind “Down by the Water” by PJ Harvey and the Early 20th-Century Folk Song Its Lyrics Echo

When Polly Jean Harvey appeared alone on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 1993, she had just dissolved her trio. But there she stood, alone with a Fender Telecaster performing the title track to her brilliant second album Rid of Me.

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As she sang, I’ll make you lick my injuries, American audiences met a pioneering artist who vividly exuded and challenged femininity.

Meanwhile, casual listeners remember To Bring You My Love’s “Down by the Water” as her defining song. It introduced PJ Harvey to a mainstream audience, but as she’s continued to do, she challenged the norms of pop songwriting.

Under the Bridge

“Down by the Water” follows the story of a woman who gives birth to a daughter and then drowns her in the water.

I lost my heart
Under the bridge
To that little girl who
Meant so much to me
And now I moan
And now I holler
She’ll never know
Just what I found

The lyrics echo the early 20th-century folk song “Salty Dog Blues,” which Mississippi John Hurt and Lead Belly famously recorded. Harvey changed the lyric Come back here, man, gimme my quarter to Come back here, man, gimme my daughter.

Little fish, big fish, swimming in the water
Come back here, man, gimme my daughter

It’s Fiction

In 2005, Harvey told Spin, “People assume my songs are autobiographical, but I’m not a dark person like the characters in my songs. Some critics have taken my writing so literally to the point that they’ll listen to ‘Down by the Water’ and believe I have actually given birth to a child and drowned her.”

The song was a departure from Harvey’s familiar minimalist sound. On her third album, To Bring You My Love, she worked with producers Flood and longtime collaborator John Parish. Together, they added electronic elements to her blues-rooted, noisy compositions.

It was Harvey’s first album without her trio. The commercial success of the Steve Albini-recorded Rid of Me had caused friction between Harvey and her band. To Bring You My Love features a more complex sound than previous albums, and “Down by the Water” became an unexpected modern rock hit in the United States.

MTV and “Joan Crawford on Acid

MTV was crucial to the success of “Down by the Water.” The Maria Mochnacz-directed video received regular rotation on the channel. In the video, Harvey wears a red satin dress in a goth-glam image she once described as “Joan Crawford on acid.”

The video opens with Harvey dancing in front of a black background before she’s fully submerged in water. She said it was a challenge to keep on the heavy wig she wore as she jumped into the water.  

“Down by the Water” received a nomination for Best Female Video at the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards. It also appeared on episodes of Beavis and Butt-head. When the video begins, the duo remarks, “Hey, look. It’s that chick.” In a previous episode featuring the Harvey song “50ft Queenie,” they said she looked like Mallory (Justine Bateman) from Family Ties.

Critically Acclaimed

To Bring You My Love was voted album of the year in several publications, including The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop.

However, Time magazine wasn’t so enthusiastic. They said the album was for “musical masochists only.”  

Harvey’s work has aged better than the Time review. She received a Mercury Prize nomination for Best Album. Moreover, she’s the only artist in history to have won the award twice (Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, and Let England Shake).

“Down by the Water” received a Grammy nomination for Best Female Rock Performance, and the album was nominated for Best Alternative Music Album in 1996.

A Gifted Poet

Harvey is a visionary artist who continues the non-conformist traditions of Kate Bush and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon. On her 1992 debut album Dry, Harvey sang about female sexuality, and The Guardian noted how the press responded by asking her when she lost her virginity.

When Jay Leno interviewed Harvey following her performance of “Rid of Me,” she talked about her family farm and castrating sheep. He responded by asking, “Are men that you date surprised to hear this?”

Beavis and Butt-head are animated, lowbrow slacker kids who spend their days watching television. But Harvey challenged the real-world status quo and instead sang with the irony of Jane Austen, “Gonna take my hips to a man who cares” in the early single “Sheela-Na-Gig.”

Still, she persisted, and Harvey became one of her generation’s most important voices and songwriters—she has an Ivor Novello Award to prove it.

PJ Harvey is a true shapeshifter whose work includes groundbreaking albums and poetry. In 2022, she published a book-length narrative poem, Orlam.

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Photo by David Lodge/FilmMagic

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