Our Chancel Choir has been working on an anthem entitled, “The Gift of Love,” by Hal Hopson. The lovely tune is based on a traditional English folk song called O WALY WALY, and is commonly used for the text that begins “The water is wide, and I can’t cross o’er”. Like most folk songs, both the tune and text have had many revisions through the years. One person takes the song as he remembers it, adds his own touches and preferences, then another musician adds his modifications, and so on down the line. The original tune is barely recognizable in the version we now have. Pete Seeger and Joan Baez recorded one recent form of the song, The Water Is Wide. In 1972, composer Hal Hopson adapted and arranged the tune, then paired it with his paraphrase of I Corinthians 13 to create the popular choir anthem.
There is a lot of documented information available about the history of this English folk song. The more I read the more surprised I became that there is anything left of the original song (and there’s not much….). While Hopson’s version of the tune is certainly effective, I began to wonder if he deliberately chose such a frequently changed tune to carry the words of God’s unchanging love. Whether or not that was his intention really doesn’t matter. What is important is that we remember that every song we write, every house we build, any wealth we gain, every thing we do, is ultimately changeable and temporary. On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that our very being is temporary. We are made of dust and to dust we will return. It is only God’s love, my friends, that is unchanging and eternal.