5 Compositions About Water in Different Musical Styles
Water Symbolizes Passion and Music Expresses it
Musical styles are different moods, where notes, sound effects, and words (if there are words) work together to affect the way a listener feels. The sound combinations conjure visual images when our eyes are closed. You can see the water sparkling, feel yourself wading in, see yourself out there surfing, and feel the raindrops falling on your head.
Composers and artists convey music's meaning in different ways, and the best performances are those where the manner of composer, performer, and audience all jive. Here are five compositions written in different musical styles (from oldest to most recent) with water as the main musical theme.
Southern Spiritual Style
1901 - Wade in de Water, by John and Frederick Work for the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
Southern spirituals are an old art form connected to slavery that were composed for different purposes. Some provided uplifting rhythms by which teams of slaves could work together, some were reminders that there were bound to be better days ahead, some were assurances that rewards would be theirs in heaven, and some were secret messages to each other about how to escape slavery.
This song appears to have been a secret message - its verses reminding people of the trek of the Israelites through the Red Sea as they escaped from the hated Egyptians. It's code cautions them to stay in the river, as they escape from their masters, to evade the bloodhounds chasing them, but not to go too far in.
Southern spirituals developed to be sung by one main voice with many others responding and echoing responses, from deep to high, simple to complex, carrying and uplifting the beat. It's a beat that's powerful and steady, that slaves used to harmonized their field work, and that we now like to clap to.
Southern gospel is the modern day version of this style, containing such rhythm and exhilaration, that it inspires a person to jump to their feet and join in.
European Classical Style
1905 - La Mer (The Ocean) by Claude Debussy, performed by the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.
La Mer is a full orchestral composition of water music first played by the Lamoureux Orchestra in Paris in 1905. Debussy wrote this three-piece composition when he was in disfavor in Paris for leaving his wife for a popular singer. La Mer made him popular again.
If you close your eyes while listening, you can almost feel the ocean's swells, feel the spray splash your face, see light sparkling off its surface, and sense water birds swooping low in the air.
The classical musical style was first developed to entertain lords and ladies, kings and queens of the European courts, especially those wealthy enough to pay for their own composers, becoming an ongoing patron for a particular musician, artist, or even orchestra. (This is where the term "patron of the arts" came from.) Composers and good musicians competed intensely for employment with the better known patrons.
Classical music is infinitely varied in its music themes, the numbers and types of instruments for which it can be written, and what they can do. It is most often written to be played by large groups, or soloists backed by large groups, and is typified by its drama, complexity, notation (detailed written instructions), and its strict execution - exactly as written by the composer, no improvisation allowed.
The Blues Musical Style
1927 - Rising High Water Blues by Blind Lemon Jefferson, performed by Ramblin' Jack.
Blind Lemon Jefferson wrote this blues song in 1927 when the Mississippi River overflowed and devasted Louisiana and neighboring states. It shows how the flood slowed everything down, how it rained day and night, while families stood on hills watching their homes flood and children cried. This powerful event gave rise to many songs by a variety of composers and singers of the times and later.
Blues is another genre that originated in the Deep South. In a casual, off-handed way it addresses themes such as struggle, love, justice and mortality. It can be depressing music, although easy to identify with. Blind Lemon Jefferson was one of the most popular blues singers in the 1920s and the first, truly successful blues recording artist.1
Blues is typified by (though not limited to) a standard and easily recognizable, 12-chord progression on the guitar (acoustic or electric) and a single singer with a rough voice worn down by work or sadness.
Country Western Style
1959 - Cool Water by Bob Nolan for his band, Sons of the Pioneers.
Cool Water is about a man traveling across the western desert with his mule (Dan), clearly thirsty, seeing mirages, and wondering when he'll ever find real water again. Along with the numerous other country western songs performed by this group, it depicts an integral and romantic part of American history. Cool Water has been recorded by many artists throughout the years, including Ramblin' Jack, Burl Ives, Joni Mitchell, and Fleetwood Mac.
Country Western (cowboy music) is simple, direct, honest. It describes the wandering, cattle-focused lifestyle that developed and spread throughout the American West up into Canada. It was influenced by the folk music of the British Isles that morphed into its own musical style, then combined by marketers with Appalachian music to form the "country" genre.
Cowboy music is typified by stringed instruments playing simple tunes, often supported by the harmonica. Until the advent of the electric guitar, everything was acoustic, giving the music a particularly romantic quality that contributed to the image of the lonely cowboy on his horse, playing guitar and singing, as he rode alone across the prairie.
Easy Listening Music
1961 - Moon River by Henry Mancini (music) and Johnny Mercer (words), written for the musical, Breakfast at Tiffany's, performed here by Andy Williams.
The movie shows Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) sitting on a balcony longing for love and adventure. In this song she imagines herself floating down a wide river with her lover, whomever he ends up being, not knowing or caring where she'll land - just two drifters off to see the world. It won an award for Best Original Song.
This movie, along with many others of its day with a variety of music themes, was created for a young adult audience looking for comedy and romance. Many such films had musical scores that were converted into albums (now CDs), including this one. Henry Mancini was the first composer to bring light jazz into the movies to enhance romance.
The easy listening musical style is characterized by flowing instrumentals that are easy on the ear, and allow for conversations over the top of them. Vocal pieces lend themselves to moody, nightclub singing. The style relaxes people, which is why it's also played in stores to help people shop, and businesses where there is a lot of waiting.
Rock and Roll Music
1962 - Surfin' Safari, written and performed by the Beach Boys.
Surfin' Safari and the Beach Boys were California's answer to the emerging popularity of the Beatles. This song, and many others by the Beach Boys, was about being carefree - playing on the beach, having fun with the ocean, and impressing friends. It talks about how their friends are out surfing and how they're gonna grab their surfboard and go out too. Everybody's having fun, skipping school, riding the waves.
Rock and roll directly appealed to young people in the early and mid-60's rebelliously tired of war, tired of their parents' focus on money, just wanting fun and independence and a new definition of love. It was a fairly new genre at the time this song was written. Check Berry, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and the Beach Boys were some of the key players who initially shaped the style and introduced the music themes unique to that generation.
Rock and roll started out simple and direct, with a straight drumbeat, a bass guitar that kept a main beat, a rhythm guitar that made the song throb, and a lead guitar that elaborated on the melody, sometimes taking the listener off into fantasyland. Bands often had a lead singer, who would supplement his/her voice with a harmonica or tamborine. The instrumentalists were generally backup singers, some of them, including the Beach Boys, producing exquisite harmonies. As the style progressed, more instruments and rhythms from other countries were added, until it eventually morphed into many new and exciting subgenres.
Rap Style in Education
1999 - Water Cycle Jump, performed for the educational TV show Bill Nye the Science Guy.
Because rap and hiphop had become so popular among young people, Bill Nye the Science Guy parodied a favorite hit to teach kids about the water cycle. The original was not about water, but the parody is:
We're gonna tell you 'bout
Evaporation makes it
Rain! Rain! . . .
Bill Nye's work has helped numerous children excel in school. In fact, one of the comments on the YouTube video (right) was from a former student who had aced a test because of this show.
Hip hop includes the whole culture surrounding the music - the manner of dress, Michael Jackson-type dancing, chains and black and graffiti. The musical style originates way back in African call-and-response rhythms with the griots (bards) of West Africa. U.S. singer James Brown is considered one of the godfathers of hip hop.
Hip hop is characterized by driving, instrumental rhythms, often synthesized, and muted to allow for a rapper to chant over them. The rap is an intense type of rhyming poetry that includes lifestyle, discontent (especially gangsta rap from Los Angeles), the environment, the dangers of drugs, and other socially responsible messages to "youngstas."
Other Water Music Choices
These are only a very few of the well known compositions out there with water themes. My era was early rock and roll (60's and 70's), and it was difficult to choose between the many songs that came to mind: Yellow Submarine, I Am a Walrus, Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head, Just Walkin' in the Rain are a few that popped up immediately. Then there's Happiness Runs by Donovan - a "simple" ditty with deep meaning (see words on right).
As you have been reading, and possibly singing along, I'm sure you have been remembering other water songs and musical styles you like. Be my guest and share them below.
Happiness runs in a circular motion,
Floating like a little boat upon the sea.
Everybody is a part of everything anyway.
You can have everything if you let yourself be.
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Susette Horspool