Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.
Children play “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” at a kindergarten. It has been suggested that the song may have originally arisen out of American minstrelsy. The earliest printing of the song is from 1852, when the lyrics were published with similar lyrics to those used today, but with a very different tune. It was reprinted again two years later with the same lyrics and another tune. The modern tune was first recorded with the lyrics in 1881, mentioning Eliphalet Oram Lyte in The Franklin Square Song Collection but not making it clear whether he was the composer or adapter.
The lyrics have often been used as a metaphor for life’s difficult choices, and many see the boat as referring to one’s self or a group with which one identifies. Rowing is a skillful, if tedious, practice that takes perfection but also directs the vessel. When sung as a group, the act of rowing becomes a unifier, as oars must be in sync in a rowboat. The idea that man travels along a certain stream suggests boundaries in the path of choices and in free will. The third line recommends that challenges should be greeted in stride while open to joy with a smile. The final line, “life is but a dream”, is perhaps the most meaningful. With a religious point of view, life and the physical plane may be regarded as having equivalent value as that of a dream, such that troubles are seen in the context of a lesser reality once one has awakened Conversely, the line can just as equally convey nihilist sentiments on the meaninglessness of man’s actions.
Some have questioned the song’s implied necessity to row one’s boat downstream. This may in fact be a commentary on the paradoxical nature of time’s arrow with respect to man’s free will in a universe of materialistic causality.