"The Truth About Row, Row, Row Your Boat"

                                                                                          Row, row, row your boat,                                    gently down the stream,                                    merrily, merrily, merrily merrily,

         life is but a dream…


We all remember the classic children’s song above, I believe I first heard it when I was in kindergarten. I remember sitting on the floor with the rest of the kids going over the song again and again. Once we had it down, the teacher divided us into small groups and we sang the song in rounds, stagger-start style. It sounded pretty cool! As far as I was concerned it was just a little kid’s tune about rowing your boat and having fun. It wasn’t until decades later when I returned to college that I learned the song had a deeper, more significant meaning, but then doesn’t everything?

I was taking a Children’s Literature course at Cal Poly and really enjoying the content. One day we were discussing children’s songs, poems and stories and their true origins and meanings, a rather fascinating topic. One of the first rhyme discussed was “Ring Around the Rosie.” Imagine my surprise when I learned that this cute little nursery rhyme is really about the Black Plague that killed off about a third of Europe back in the 1300’s. The “ring around the rosie”refers to the red blotches caused by the plague, “pockets full of posie” refers to the packets of herbs used to fight the infection , ashes, ashes refers to the cremation of the dead and “all fall down” refers to the fact that the plague afflicted both rich and poor alike. Wow! I never had a clue.

And did you know “Mary, Mary quite contrary how does your garden grow?” is about Catholic Queen ‘Bloody Mary’, the daughter of King Henry VIII? Her garden  is a graveyard of martyred Protestants,  ‘silver bells refers to thumbscrews  and ‘cockleshells’ to tools of torture. And are you ready for this? the “little maids all in a row” are a reference to “the Maiden” an English version of the guillotine. Other rhymes discussed included “Jack and Jill,” “Pop goes the Weasel,””Humpty Dumpty,” “Three Blind Mice”  and several others, all with sinister origins.

Then our discussion took a more positive turn as we began to look at young children’s stories as metaphors for good life lessons. of course one of my favorites came up, “The Little Engine That Could,” a children’s story from the early 1900’s about a little engine who is asked to help pull a stranded train up and over a tall hill. the little engine approaches the job with an “I think I can,” attitude. As he struggles up the hill he begins to seriously doubt his ability to make it over the top, but with perseverance, hard work, and a strong believe in himself and his abilities, he at long last succeeds in reaching his goal. Truly a cute success story that teaching children the value of optimism and hard work. In fact many critics believe that the book is a metaphor for the American dream.

Several Dr. Seuss stories and poems were mentioned but it was the discussion on “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” as a metaphor for life that really caught my attention. As I mentioned earlier I never thought much about it as a philosophical or profound life anthem  but according to the professor there is definitely a deeper meaning.

In the song “Your boat” signifies your life, you are the oarsman, rowing down the river of time. But you aren’t simply rowing for a shot time and then are done with it, no, you are constantly row,row, rowing, meaning you are consistently working at life, rowing towards an end.  of course some people row too quickly or try to race along but that’s not the way you should be rowing, you can miss too much along the way. No, you’re supposed to do it gently, slowly going with the current. You can’t force it, you simply go with the flow.

We’ve all heard the term “attitude is everything,” and it is.  According to the song we should be row, row, rowing, merrily along, meaning we should be happy, joyous and passionate about our life journey. The song doesn’t say to row angrily, grudgingly or while upset. Its telling us to relax, be happy and enjoy the ride because “life is but a dream.” It’s our dream, our creation, just as our boat/life is ours and ours alone, no one can row our boat for us, we must do it ourselves. We have the ability to make our journey dream-like or nightmarish. The choice is ours alone. 

I took that Children’s Lit class over 25 years ago. It was one of  the best classes I ever took, informative, entertaining and definitely thought-provoking. I never looked at children’s poems, stories and songs the same way ever again.

So if in fact “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” is a lesson on how we should live our lives, well then all I can say is “hang in there and keep row, row, rowing, merrily, merrily, merrily along,  make your life a dream…”

Just Saying…


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33 Responses to "The Truth About Row, Row, Row Your Boat"

  1. Amber says:

    i dont know how old this post is but i am please to be informed by the true meaning behind RRYB and your opinion about it, i hope to be able to take such literature class in future since it does interest me.
    well thank you

  2. Yes, all that is true, but the ending of the song is even more fantastic: “life is but a dream.” For me that meens that the earthly life is not the real life, but the spiritual life in a spiritual world are real life that we wake up to after we have left the earthly. Life is but a dream! 🙂

  3. Heidi says:

    This was interesting. I think you and the songwriter was onto something: “life,” or our conception of life, maybe is a dream. I mean that the meaning we make of our lives, the stories of our life that we buy into, exist in our minds. We reify these narratives. Maybe the most essential part of our life is not the narrative that continues in our minds. Maybe the real life is something bigger, and more basic, that we don’t realize.

  4. Buck says:

    I remember singing this song at summer camp in the 50’s. We’d sing it over and over each time leaving off the last sung word of the last line. You could say it was a regressive progression. It’s becoming more poignant every day.
    Time for another cuppa coffee…

  5. Scott says:

    Several gurus from India promoted this very idea that life is but the dream of a single unbounded consciousness. That the very foundation of reality is not matter or energy buy consciousness itself and that the Universe is merely an appearance and all we inhabitants merely dream characters. See Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta Maharaji.

    • Forrest Evans says:

      Nisargadatta: “All happens as it needs, yet nothing happens. I do what seems to be necessary, but at the same time I know that nothing is necessary, that life itself is only a make-belief.” Certainly agrees with the song! Gently gently, life is but a dream…

  6. Rixx says:

    The same with all other spooky songs like the London bridge falling

  7. Rob says:

    Scott: this gets a lot closer to the true meaning then, sorry to say, the author has I feel. Then again, he did mention it was his take or spin on the song so I’ll be gentle. And the other more sinister tunes were very informative and fun to learn so good job for that.

    The “life is but a dream” has definitely a more spiritual meaning to me which is closely related to atman. Also, see Alan Watts, hint: you’re IT.

  8. Pingback: Row, Row, Row Your Boat | The Five Facets

  9. Deborah Collins says:

    This is one of the most profound pieces of information I have come across! Knowing the the truth about RRRYB nursery rhyme raises my level of consciousness. I Am grateful for the information shared! The best things in life really are free! No matter the conditions or appearances surrounding me, I now know that I must row, row, row my boat gently and merrily down the stream because life is but a wonderful dream! Thank you!

    • David Detrick says:

      I think you should know the truth about nursery rhymes; specifically RRRYB. Before considering yourself enlightened, make sure your information is accurate.

      The reason nursery rhymes were written and are sung with children repetitively is to shift their consciousness to another state that leaves them open to suggestion.

      Nursery rhymes teach children to remain in that dream like state of consciousness, which most people will do throughout their lives.

      The lyrics refer to being docile, accepting whatever circumstances arise throughout life without resisting or cpmplaining. It teaches children to remain in the dream state; to comply.

  10. Maureen says:

    Thank you for this post on the underlying meaning of one of my all time favourite children’s songs. Good to know that this song is encrypted with deep meaningful message.

  11. Malcolm says:

    Yes, Rob. We are dreaming our way through life. Some do awaken and make a report. Google “non-duality” or “Advaita” and see for yourself

  12. Danie says:

    I’ve just known about this song when I looked for nursery rhymes for my son, then I fell in love with this song. I am from Indonesia that I’ve never heard this before. Thank you for this post, it helps me know the real meaning, awesome.

    • David Detrick says:

      The song is actually designed to place children into a trance-like like state of consciousness. Through repetition and the specific frequencies, their consciousness is shifted to leave them more open to suggestion. They are being taught from their first years of schooling to remain in that trance; that dream like state. The lyrics refer to remaining calm and accepting their circumstances without complaining or attempting to change things.

  13. Betty Toh says:

    I knew this song since kindergarten days and lately when I sang this nursery rhymn to my great granddaughter, it suddenly hit me as to whether there’s a more profound
    meaning to it.Thanks for confirming my thought. Planet earth is only our temporary home and the day will come when we will be called home to our permanent home in the spiritual realm.The earth is just a school for souls to “learn lessons” from all the obstacles along life’s journey. Rich or poor, powerful, strong or weak there’s no exception in that we are all heading in the same direction…..!

  14. Christine says:

    I think that one consideration may be to infer what word is missing before ‘but’. So, if it is ‘nothing’ then for me, this is an untruth. ‘Life’ is alive and is evolving – as sure as time is can be measured.
    My later age is yet to be discovered and experienced. And that will be the right time for my enlightenment. I know we are individuals and interpret our worlds individually so live and let live!

  15. David Detrick says:

    Actually, the song was designed to place children into a trance-like state, as well as the other nursery rhymes. The reason for the repetition and the specific frequencies are to change the children’s state of consciousness to one that leaves them open to suggestion.
    The truth of the matter is that from the earliest year of schooling, children are taught to remain on a dream like state of consciousness. The lyrics refer to going with the flow, not making waves, accepting their circumstances, etc.

    • Torisho Student says:

      Where can I get more information on the true meaning of nursery rhymes and how they are used as neurolinguistic devices? Your comments tell me much more than the post itself.

  16. Jess Tannen says:

    Or.. it means the universe is holographic?

  17. karma says:

    Good day and Happy Sunday to all!
    Been researching Life being the Dream and Death being Life this whole morning now.
    The reason why is I woke up this morning after having such a VERY VIVID dream.
    A lady was leading with some kind of Sceptor in her hand and I was following the group around a huge centered block. Definately felt like I was on some other plane/realm. She pointed out to me and I recall her saying something along the lines “There is something in You.” She approached me closely with here hand or Sceptor and I started leaning down backwards til my whole body was laying down flat on the ground. In my dream I remember thinking “Is it something evil..something bad..oh noo.” I was scared in the dream and was reaching out with my right arm holding her left arm tightly. Everything all around me turned BRIGHT WHITE LIGHTS and I said her name “Lori” in fear and trying to take her with me as she kept fading out from the intense bright lights. Then, I saw a quick small tunnel and that is where I woke up. I fully awoke on my bed staring at the ceiling. The light was so bright in my dream that it woke me up. While awake I had no idea where I was (in my bedroom on my bed).
    First thoughts were “Is this Life a Dream or is My Dreaming the Dream.”
    Life on earth being so temporary , then we leave here…there is an Eternity of Life after death. I did not want to leave from my dream and when I awoke it was difficult to determine which was TRUE REALITY. The Dream or the WORLD I have created my life in. The dream was not spectacular, however being forced out of the dream by someone telling me “something inside you” and woken up is what GOT ME to thinking and now searching just to stumble on this site and learn more.

    Still trying to figure out my dream and the thoughts I had after.
    Its as if I died in reverse.. from dream to being back on Earth. The realization came to me as a warning , but also as a motivator in ” You can do anything” if we are living in a DREAM. So don’t limit yourself to what you can do or share with the world and to those around you, especially your loved ones! If we are indeed living in a DREAM, then by God ROW IT Merily with PURPOSE not taking the time for granted! Once you move on from this life , then your desires change to something more profound, I beleive.

  18. Ted Ely says:

    Agree with David. The songs are to put you asleep to the reality; where truth becomes lies and lies become truth. Life isn’t a dream, but majority our sleeping and not really living, because we fell to realize that we are in a state of sleep! Our lives are not normal, but we believe that it is!

  19. owen says:

    Or should we say..life is like a dream..as we wake up to a more far greater reality of exsistence when flesh form come to it’s end…

  20. Rachel says:

    Interesting that you refer to the little engine that could with a masculine pronoun – in the book it is personified as a “she” and for me that is a huge part of the meaning of the story!

  21. Maurice amyot says:

    Just today my wife and I sang this song several times as a round. It was an attempt to calm are 4 year old Graci and 3 year old Caleb. As I was singing my part I was paying attention to the lyrics. I told my wife that this song is not good! Andrea wanted and tried to assure me that it was positive. I didn’t think so. She listened to me explain that rowing your boat down stream was easy. The easy way might not always be the best way. In fact when things get accomplished and when obstacles are met. Rowing upstream in my mind is like the road less travelled. It’s harder to Row but now you are discovering new things. I mean. If we did nothing in the boat, we would be going downstream anyway.
    Merrily merrily merrily gently down the stream is to me like bliss. Ignorance is bliss.ignorance is dreaming without action. If life is a dream then we don’t have to do anything.
    Wow! I’m negative Nancy tonight.

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