he Water Service is one of my favorite services of the year. It has that same exciting feeling we got for the first day of school; we reunite, greet each other after a summer of traveling and relaxing, and prepare for a new year as a church family. We combine water that we’ve collected along our way, and like us, it comes together to form a special whole. The Water Service also holds personal significance for me, as the first service I ever played at the UUFC was the Water Service of 2012, immediately after Rev. Joel Miller hired me. The last five years have been very dear to me, and I’m grateful to be part of the UUFC staff.
“Oh Shenandoah” is an old and beloved American folk song hailing from the beginning of the nineteenth century. There are numerous sets of lyrics for this famous tune; most refer to the Native American chief Shenandoah but some also refer to the Shenandoah Valley or the Shenandoah River in Virginia. There are no single “official” lyrics for “Oh Shenandoah”, but the majority of renditions include this text:
I long to see you,
Away you rolling river.
I long to see you,
Away, I’m bound away
‘Cross the wide Missouri.
Trappers and fur traders were amongst the few who ventured as far as the Missouri River in the early 1800s, and songs were a large part of boat-centered lifestyles. “Oh Shenandoah” became a well-known shanty sung by the fur-trading French-Canadian voyageurs who sailed the Missouri River, and it was eventually picked up by sailors traveling the Mississippi River, eventually spreading throughout the world.
“Moon River” and La Mer (or its equally famous American counterpart “Beyond the Sea”) are two songs I find myself returning to each September for the past few years. Composed respectively by Henry Mancini and Charles Trenet, both songs possess an exquisite simplicity and use ever-changing and mysterious bodies of water to symbolize beautiful, unpredictable, and constantly-moving life. Upon looking at my notes for the past few years, I see that while I’ve used several other songs (“Under the Sea”, “River Flows in You”, etc.) for past Water Sundays, I’ve played “Moon River” and La Mer for three Water Sundays in a row. Much like stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld retired his old material after his “I’m Telling You for the Last Time” tour and television special, I will be challenging myself to play new water-related pieces for this service in the future. There is such a large collection to choose from, and I’m excited to find water-inspired works that hold the same amount of beauty and significance!*
Billy Joel’s “River of Dreams” might not be the first song that comes to mind when thinking of water, but much like “Moon River” and La Mer (or Rev. Jill’s translation of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”, for that matter,) the water the lyrics speak of stands for something with much deeper meaning than a physical river or stream. Every time Joel returns to the main tune, “In the middle of the night, I go walking in my sleep”, whether he begins at “the mountains of faith”, “the valley of fear”, “the jungle of doubt”, or “the desert of truth”, he ends at “the river so deep”. What is the river so deep? Joel goes on to describe the river as an obstacle (“the river is wide, and it’s too hard to cross”), as part of our search for meaning (“[I] try to cross to the opposite side, so I can finally find out what I’ve been looking for”), as a spiritual journey (“I wade into the river that runs to the promised land”), and ends with
We all end in the ocean
We all start in the streams
We’re all carried along
By the river of dreams.
If that isn’t a metaphor for life itself, I don’t know what is.
(*To learn more about water-inspired pieces of music from the classical world, here are some great introductions to some musical gems from Corvallis pianist/composer Kathryn Louderback: