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Rivers, from "Ferry Cross the Mersey," a song by Gerry & the Pacemakers

Subthemes: Bridges, Ferries and Fords, Cities and Industry, Irrigation, Farming and Fishing

In 1965, a British band released a song with a name and lyrics referring to the river that flows through Liverpool, the Mersey, and a ferry service that crosses it. The song simply and powerfully speaks of home, of comfort, of friends and feeling safe in a harsh world. Click here to listen to the song. Other river-related subthemes emerge.

Life goes on day after day
Hearts torn in every way
So ferry, cross the Mersey
‘Cause this land’s the place I love
And here I’ll stay

People they rush everywhere
Each with their own secret care
So ferry, cross the Mersey
And always take me there
The place I love

People around every corner
Seem to smile and say
We don’t care what your name is, boy
We’ll never turn you away
So I’ll continue to say
Here I always will stay
So ferry, cross the Mersey
‘Cause this land’s the place I love
And here I’ll stay
And here I’ll stay
Here I’ll stay

Source: Musixmatch Songwriters: Gerard Marsden / U.s. Income Only
Ferry Cross the Mersey lyrics © Pacermusic Ltd.

Bridges, Ferries and Fords: The ferry over the Mersey symbolizes the singer’s roots, security, and beloved home. Perhaps the singer commutes on it to and from work. For millennia people waded the shallow stretches to cross rivers. Or perhaps atop a horse or ox they could handle deeper crossings. At times, ropes, tree trunks, or strategically placed rocks helped them traverse the flow. For deeper or wider rivers, small boats ferried goods and people back and forth. Today, the largest commuter ferry system in the world is the Ferries in Istanbul, Turkey, per The Biggest, which carries upwards of 300,000 people each work day with 87 vessels serving 86 ports of call. As far back as 5,000 years ago, people erected bridges, and later still avoided the perils and difficulties of rivers by digging tunnels under them. Regarding tunnels, a table on Wikipedia lists tunnels under the Thames River in London: 12 for utilities, 15 for railroads, 5 roadways, 2 pedestrian, 1 floods, and 1 multipurpose – a total of 36!

Cities and Industries: Astride the Mersey River, the port of Liverpool had grown to approximately 1.3 million residents when Gerry & the Pacemakers recorded their hit. In the United States, however, only six of the ten largest cities boast a major river (Hudson [New York City], Illinois [Chicago], Delaware [Philadelphia], San Antonio [San Antonio], San Diego [San Diego], and Trinity [Dallas]. The other cities on that list have rivers, but they are small or short. A river can become a synecdoche for a metropolis: the Thames, the Tiber, the Danube (Budapest), and the Seine come to mind. And, who can forget the palaces of Kubla Khan on the sacred river Alph.

Industries like proximity to a river. Large power plants and factories crave the enormous quantities of water needed for cooling. Manufacturers of petrochemicals, steel, and textiles also favored riverside locations for the barges that could ship in raw materials and take back finished products. Canals are man-made rivers to supplement the transportation networks. Industries also draw on dam turbines to power their machinery.

Irrigation, Farming and Fishing: Around the world, farmers draw from rivers to water their crops. Rivers nourished subsistence crops. Since time immemorial, periodic flooding of mighty tributaries deposited fertile silt. That boon is one reason the earliest civilizations flourished in the proximity of a major river: Mesopotamia amidst the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Egypt along the Nile, China on the Yellow River, and Indus on the Indus River.

It used to be that river-dwellers obtained much of their protein from fishing. Nets, traps, and lines brought in a large, steady supply of fish and once refrigerated transportation became available, the market expanded rapidly. However, particularly in industrialized countries, over-fishing, pollution, and levee-building dramatically cut the tons of river fish caught.


A metaphorical anchor and bolster for the Liverpudlian singer, the Mersey River and the ferries that cross it bind him emotionally to his hometown. Liverpool grew to become a major city because of its river and port. Its early industries and farming relied on the Mersey.

If you are interested in further thoughts on the concept Rivers, consider other subthemes that don’t fit as directly to the poem, painting, rock song, and movie written about in this series. For an overview, this article explains Themes from Art or click on the navigation bar, About.

We invite you to read about other songs discussed on this blog, and their themes. Here they are:

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