Ralph McTell: The Ferryman

Hermann Hesse‘s novel Siddharta (published 1922) has inspired millions of seekers world-wide. Ralph McTell, English singer-songwriter best known for Streets of London and From Clare to Here, made a memorial to this book with his song The Ferryman. It was released in 1971 on the album You Well-Meaning Brought Me Here.

Siddhartha and the Ferryman

Siddharta meets the ferryman twice. The first time as a young man who has just left behind the ascetic Samanas to find his own path to wisdom. The ferryman puts him over to the other side of the river.

The second meeting occurs many years later. This time, Siddhartha stays with the ferryman, lives and works with him, and learns from him and, even more so, from the river. The song addresses this second encounter.

Siddhartha had already progressed far on his journey. However, something was still missing: a true, deep understanding of the people he met. Up to this moment, he had always felt estranged from his fellow human beings.

The river teaches Siddhartha the connection of all life, and opens up his empathy and understanding.

Ralph McTell’s Traveller, Ferryman and River

Ralph McTell doesn’t exactly tell the book. He speaks of a travelling seeker whose questions about life weigh heavily on him.

Oh, the traveller moving on the land,
behold I give you, I give you the travelling man.
And he’s very heavy laden with the questions in his burden.

Like seekers in other songs on this website, McTell’s traveller has collected vast amounts of experiences, but hasn’t fulfilled his deepest longing.

He has crossed the mountains, he has forded streams.
He has spent a long time surviving on his dreams.
Many times he’s tried to lighten up his heavy load.
But his compromises fail him and he ends back on the road.

These lines may remind us of Bob Dylan’s Love in Vain: Well I’ve been to the mountain and I’ve been in the wind / I’ve been in and out of happiness / I have dined with kings, I’ve been offered wings / And I’ve never been too impressed

The seeker is looking out for someone to help him alleviate his burden.

Oh the traveller he is weary, the travelling man he is tired.
For the road is never ending in his fear he has cried aloud for a saviour
And in vain for a teacher, someone to lighten up the load

In Hesse’s novel, Siddhartha and his friend Govinda encounter a saint, Gotama. Siddhartha acknowledges his enlightened state, but doesn’t believe his wisdom can be passed on through teachings. While Govinda stays with Gotama, Siddhartha feels he needs to move on to earn his own insights through personal experience.

McTell comes closer to the literary template when describing the ferryman. This simple man, uneducated in a formal sense, turns out to be a saint in his own right. His main trait is a far-reaching ability to listen: to listen to people as well as the river. Thus, the seeker finds answers to his questions as well by listening to the river.

At last he reached a river so beautiful and wide
But the current was so strong he could not reach the other side
And the weary travelling man looked for a ferryman
strong enough to row against the tide,
And the ferryman was old but he moved the boat so well,
Or did the river move the boat? The traveller could not tell.
Said the ferryman, “You’re weary and the answers that you seek,
Are in the singing river, listen humbly it will speak.”

Long before this Siddhartha had let go of earthly worries. This became evident when he worked as a merchant: He was able to accept wins and losses in the same relaxed state of mind. There was, however, one exception: The loss of his son hurt him for a long time, until this wound could finally blossom, as Hesse put it.

Oh, the traveller closed his eyes and he listened and he heard
Only the river murmuring and the beating of his heart.
Then he heard the river laughing, and he heard the river crying
And in it was the beauty and the sadness of the world
And he heard the sounds of dying, but he heard the sounds of birth
And slowly his ears heard all the sounds of earth.
The sounds blended together and they became a whole
And the rhythm was his heartbeat to the music his soul.

The path to wisdom does not end when all earthly bindings dissolve. The seeker then learns to realize the unity of all life, and not experience himself as a separated being any more.

And the river had no beginning, as it flowed into the sea
And the seas filled the clouds and the rains filled the streams
And as slowly as the sunrise, he opened up his eyes
To find the ferryman had gone, the boat moved gently on the tide.
And the river flowed within him, and with it he was one
And the seas moved around the earth, and the earth around the sun.
And the traveller was the river, was the boat and ferryman,
Was the journey and the song that the singing river sang.

The Ferryman leaves, the Traveller becomes his Successor

Both in the song and the novel, the ferryman finally leaves, for he has found a successor who has matured to take his place.

The names in Hesse’s novel relate to Hinduism and Buddhism:

  • Siddhartha: Siddhartha Gautama, name of the historical Buddha
  • The ferryman is called Vasudeva: Krishna‘s father, an avatar of Vishnu
  • Govinda, Siddharta’s friend: one of Krishna‘s names, see Bhagavad Gita
  • Gotama: name of Buddha in Pali, an ancient language in which Buddhist texts were preserved

Here’s a version from a younger Ralph McTell:

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