There are 60 tracks on Fragments – Time Out of Mind Sessions (1996-1997), the latest installment in Bob Dylan’s ongoing Bootleg Series. Dylan himself wrote 59 of them himself. One, however, is an unexpected cover.
“The Water Is Wide” is a traditional American folk song that dates back to the early 1800s. The waters gets a bit murky at that point, but the song, alternately known as “Waly, Waly,” was likely adapted from a Scottish or Irish ballad dating back a couple centuries further.
Dylan himself has been singing “The Water Is Wide” for decades. He first performed it as a duet with Joan Baez, who might well have introduced him to it, on the Rolling Thunder Revue. It was a highlight of their duo sets together. The next year, he sang it at a session for Eric Clapton’s album No Reason To Cry. It returned again in the late ’80s and early ’90s, where he performed an acoustic version in his own shows. Somewhat surprisingly, it doesn’t appear he ever attempted it for the two folk-covers albums he recorded in the mid’-90s, Good As I Been to You or World Gone Wrong.
Now we learn that a few years later, he actually tried it in the studio for a different album. He delivers “The Water Is Wide” beautifully in 1996, at one of the earliest sessions for Time Out of Mind. It’s unclear whether it was actually being considered for the album, or was just a warm-up with the band, but either way it’s clearly a polished arrangement and a wonderfully committed vocal from Bob. (Update: A newspaper report at the time indicates it may have been recorded for a Pete Seeger tribute album, but Bob was unhappy with his performance and pulled it).
Listen to it below, along with versions from Rolling Thunder (with Baez) in ’75, the Clapton session in ’76, and 1989 to compare.
PS. At my live-Dylan newsletter, I wrote an exhaustive guide to the concert recordings on Fragments if you’re into deep-dive Dylan nerdery.