Willie Williamson      Pulling Hard against the stream    SA1971.214.1

© Victoria and Albert Museum

© Victoria and Albert Museum


This moralising  music-hall song dates from 1867 and comes from the pen of prolific music-hall composer and performer Harry Clifton (1824-1872).

It was taken up and popularised by the Irish singer and circus owner Johnny Patterson.  Patterson’s  last performance of this song was in Tralee in 1889, when it is reported that he sang it holding a red flag bearing a crown  in one hand and  a green flag bedecked with  a harp in the other, and mingled them together as he sang.  Apparently he had hoped thereby  to encourage Protestants and Catholics to live together peaceably – but some of the audience objected violently and a melee ensued during which  he was hit over the head with an iron bar and kicked:  he died from his injuries four days later.

The song was among the many  penny song sheets  which  were sold by the printer Sanderson of Edinburgh and which were bought by people in Whalsay where  its nautical symbolism would have made it doubly attractive to men like Willie.

Steve Roud lists numerous  sources, many of them from the USA and Canada as well as Scotland (Roud index no. 1958).

In this world I’ve gained my knowledge,
And for it I’ve had to pay.
Though I haven’t been to college
Yet I’ve heard a poet say –
Life is like a mighty river,
Flowing on from day to day,
Men are vessels launched upon it,
Sometimes wrecked and cast away.

Then do your best for one another,
Making life a pleasant dream,
Help a weary worn-out brother
Pulling hard against the stream.

Many a good kind-hearted fellow,
Many a noble-minded man,
Finds himself in water shallow;
Then assist him if you can.
Some succeed in ev’ry turning,
Fortune favours every scheme:
Others though, be more deserving,
Pulling hard against the stream.

Then do your best …

If the wind be in your favour,
And you’ve weather’d ev’ry squall,

Think of those whose luckless labour,
Never get fair winds at all;  
Working hard, contented, willing,
Struggling o’er life’s ocean wide;
Without a guide and not a shilling; 
Pulling hard against the tide.

So do your best ….

Then don’t give way to foolish sorrow,
Always keep you in good cheer:
Brighter days will come to-morrow
If you only persevere.
Darkest nights will have a morning,
Though the sky be overcast;
Longest lanes will have a turning,
And the tide will turn at last.

Then do your best ….