What are the full lyrics, actions and origins of ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’?

3 August 2021, 20:46 | Updated: 16 November 2023, 17:01

Life is but a dream.
Life is but a dream. Picture: Alamy

By Rosie Pentreath

We unpack the history and origins of the wholesome, actions-based nursery rhyme.

‘Row Row Row Your Boat’ is a nursery rhyme, and a fun singalong song with accompanying actions.

The idyllic lyrics depict a journey that makes you into the protagonist, rowing a boat nice and serenely down a stream. Life is dreamy.

But who wrote the song, and where did it come from? Let’s row on and find out…

Read more: What are the lyrics and meaning of ‘Hey Diddle Diddle’?

What are the origins of ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’?

Like many traditional children’s folk songs and nursery rhymes, the original author is unknown.

The earliest publication of the song found in history is from 1852, and American teacher and textbook author Eliphalet Oram Lyte has a name credit next to the publication of the song in the 1881 Franklin Square Song Collection. Lyte’s version has the tune most widely known today, whereas previous versions have a different melody.

The song is accompanied by actions – usually participants sitting opposite one another, holding hands, and ‘rowing’ backwards and forwards together to mimic the lilting boat – that teach babies and young children coordination and communication skills.

It can also be sung as a round, with four or more singers joining in every time a new line is sung, creating some nice four-part harmony.

Read more: What are the lyrics to French nursery rhyme ‘Frère Jacques’, and who was he?

Old MacDonald in the Style of Beethoven

What are the full lyrics of ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’?

‘Row Row Row Your Boat’ has just one stanza, with four lines:

Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream

Other versions of the lyrics can be created off the cuff, and many of these have been passed on and stuck over time. You may have come across other words, including the fun versions that bring various animals in, below:

Row, row, row your boat
Gently up the creek
If you see a little mouse
Don’t forget to squeak!

Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
If you see a crocodile
Don’t forget to scream!

Row, row, row your boat
Gently to the shore
If you see a lion
Don’t forget to roar!

Singing Hands: Row Your Boat - Makaton Sign Language

What is the meaning of ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’?

It’s a wholesome adventure, and many people have put their own spins on the depth of the song’s meaning over time.

The positive messages of rowing on determinedly, the gentleness of the stream, the merriment of it all, and the dreaminess of life lend themselves irresistibly to revealing a deeper meaning in ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’ – a meaning that revolves around keeping going, staying focused, having a positive outlook and keeping things in perspective.

This guy went viral a few years ago discussing just that.

Whether a simple song to teach children communication and coordination, or a rhyme with a deeper meaning, it’s an undeniably catchy, uplifting little tune, perfect for keeping young‘uns entertained.