Last weekend a few friends and I took a three-day canoe trip down the Des Moines River in Iowa, starting in Estherville and ending up in Rutland. Since this experience, I can’t get the river off my mind (I have water on the brain). The journey packed a jambalaya of emotions: fear, exhilaration, calm, joy, and enlightenment. Many around Iowa look at the Des Moines River as a dirty cesspool of cow dung and pesticides, but they’ve obviously never gotten to know those murky brown waters. Now, I can’t help but feel a connection to the river.
Realizing I need to post a blog before BDWPS.com dries up like a riverbed, I contemplated different albums I could review. Nothing excited me though, and without passion, my writing sits as lifeless as a dead fish on the banks. Instead, I followed my recent enthusiasm from my river experience and decided to write a list of the “Top 20 River Songs.” As I started compiling the list I began to realize that rivers have been the subject of many, many, many songs. And it isn’t any wonder: rivers are mysterious old souls that can look serene and inviting while hiding beneath their vast power and unpredictability. They are both beautiful and terrifying at the same time.
“Lazy River” Louie Armstrong
“Green River” CCR
“Yes, the River Knows” The Doors
“The River” Dutchess and the Duke
“Roll On Columbia” Woody Guthrie
“How Deep is that River” Mason Jennings
“River of Deceit” Mad Season
“All the Gifted Children” Lou Reed
“Mississippi River” Muddy Waters
20. “Proud Mary” Creedence Clearwater Revival
I hate this song (probably because it has been so over-played), but I felt compelled to include it on the list. If you asked the average person to name five river songs, this song would undoubtedly come up. If I left it off the list I would be deceiving the readers based solely on my bias. I prefer the CCR version over Tina Turner’s. Then again, that’s like saying I prefer liver and onions over a Spam sandwich. Regardless, you made the list CCR. Take your #20 ranking and roll with it.
19. “River, Stay ‘Way From the Door” Frank Sinatra
“River, Stay Away From the Door” is a plea to flood waters to stay away from the narrator’s cabin. The song takes on a double meaning as a plea to an ex-wife or girlfriend, asking her to stay away and leave him with the few items that he still has: his bed and a fire. And really, that’s all a man needs, right?
18. “Dam that River” Alice in Chains
As with 90% of Alice in Chains songs, “Dam that River” is about heroin addiction. In it, Layne Staley sings of someone trying to dam the river (stop his addiction), but despite their efforts, the river still washed him away. Damn.
17. “Down in the River to Pray” Alison Krauss
There has always been a connection between rivers and religion, one that goes beyond baptism. With “Down in the River to Pray” Allison Krauss sings about going to the banks to speak to God. And why wouldn’t she? Just like God, the river is deep and mystifying, cleansing and strong, ceaseless and never-ending. It makes you wonder why anyone who lives within 20 miles of a river goes to church to pray.
16. “Ballad of Easy Rider” Byrds
On the “Ballad of Easy Rider,” the Byrds draw a connection between riding a motorcycle and riding a river, and I guess it makes sense. During our trip down the Des Moines last weekend, we often didn’t know where we were or where the curving waters would take us next, but we never really cared just as long as we kept moving. I imagine this is the same experience those roving bikers felt in “Easy Rider,” letting the journey lead their way toward freedom. The only difference being (spoiler alert) we didn’t have a bad acid trip or get murdered by hillbillies. (Side note: Bob Dylan helped write this song)
15. “River of Sorrow” Antony and the Johnsons
No other voice could pull this song off quite like Antony. His croon always captures the spirit of a desperate soul. On “River of Sorrow” he begs the endless river to stop swallowing many things: sorrow, love, and time. Now if only he’d tell the river not to swallow my cell phone and wallet (which it did!).
14. “Ol’ Man River” Beach Boys
You knew “Ol’ Man River” would make the list. It’s a staple of the river song catalog and has been performed by artists such as Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Ray Charles, but my favorite version comes from the Beach Boys off their album “Friends/20/20.” It’s probably inappropriate to like their version the best considering it originated as a slave song with lyrics like “let me go away from the white man boss.” Oh well, I’m a sucker for Bryan Wilson harmonies. I guess I would draw the Beach-Boys-slave-song-line at “Strange Fruit” (although I imagine it would even be pretty incredible).
13. “Pissing in a River” Patti Smith
I first discovered this song when I read Nick Hornby’s Songbook. In the chapter on “Pissing in a River” he recounts an incredible show he caught of Patti Smith and how her performance of this song still remains in his mind. Hornby says it best: “…the song was called ‘Pissing a River’; and it was played on guitars, and it lasted four or five minutes, and its emotional effects depended entirely on its chords and its chorus and its attitude. It’s a pop song, in other words, and like a lot of other pop songs, it’s capable of just about anything.”
12. “River Euphrates” Pixies
In “River Euphrates” the narrator finds himself stranded, out of gas, on the Gaza Strip. I used to think his solution was to ride a tire down the Euphrates river, which would be pretty sweet, but doing research for this blog I discovered that he actually says “Ride the tiger down the River Euphrates!” Riding a tiger down a river?! And I thought riding a tire was bad ass.
11. “Five Feet High and Rising” Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash has several river based songs (“Big River,” “Run Softly Blue River”) but the one I like the best is “Five Feet High and Rising.” I love how the song goes up a key each verse, a subtle touch that adds to the narrative. Plus, Cash somehow makes a disaster like a five foot flood sound fun.
10. “Watching the River Flow” Bob Dylan
When I started compiling this list, Bob Dylan’s “Watching the River Flow” was one of the first songs to come to mind, but when I searched through my i-Pod for the song, it was nowhere to be found. “What album was it on?” I wondered, searching one album after another. Then I realized I first heard it on his second edition of greatest hits, which I didn’t load to iTunes for redundancy reasons. With all of Dylan’s bootlegs and rarity albums you’d think there would be another place to find this great song, but it has only be seen on that one greatest hits compilation. It’s a testament to Dylan’s songwriting talents; an awesome song like “Watching the River Flow” is just a leftover.
9. “Shenandoah” Pete Seeger
A song about as old as America’s rivers themselves, “Shenandoah” once served as a shanty for river men and has changed over time as people from across our great nation changed and added lyrics to fit their region. Over the years, the name “Shenandoah” in the song has represented a plethora of things: a river, an Indian chief’s daughter, and a small Iowa town. Pete Seeger’s version is my favorite. While others spruce their recording up with orchestra swells and back-up choirs, Seeger captures the folk soul of the song simply with his voice and a guitar (there’s also a live version with a banjo - yes, a banjo).
8. “Black Water” Doobie Brothers
“Black Water” has an upbeat, blue grass feel that captures the sensation of rolling down the river with friends, taking the experience all in. It also hearkens back to Huck Finn’s journey down the Mississippi on a raft and how those black waters led his way. Some have suggested that the black water represents anything from bong water to moon shine, but I tend to believe it is simply about the Mississippi River. And if it is about drugs or alcohol, why are they riding on a raft? Does that symbolize a bean bag? And are the catfish pot brownies?
7. “Whiskey River” Willie Nelson
I don’t think there is an actual Whiskey River, but the metaphor is pretty obvious. With a broken heart, Willie turns to whiskey to wash away his pain and take his mind off of his problems for just a while. The river makes for a great whiskey analogy because while riding the Des Moines we were disconnected from the real world of responsibilities. It was just us and that amber current (Note to self: bring a bottle of Jack next year).
6. “River Guard” Smog
This song always reminds me of “Shawshank Redemption.” Not that there are any rivers in the film, but Bill Callahan’s story of these prisoners being free for just a moment conjures up the image of Andy Dufresne and his gang drinking beers on the rooftop, finding joy and freedom for an instant. The river serves that same purpose in “River Guard,” giving these criminals a chance to be “unburdened and relaxed.”
5. “River” Joni Mitchell
I find it strange that Joni Mitchell’s “River” has become a Christmas song. It was never intended as such. Sure, it speaks of decorations and songs of peace, but the message is anything but joyful. Joni wrote “River” about the remorse she felt when thinking back on the daughter she gave up for adoption. Instead of most songs on this list that speak of flowing waters, Joni wants a frozen river to “skate away on.” That’s a Canadian for ya.
4. “Down By the Water” PJ Harvey
What happened under the bridge is still in question, but there is no doubt that innocence was lost. Whether it was the narrator who lost her childhood to sexual abuse or her actual daughter, she stands on the banks of the river and begs the fish (Christ) to bring back her purity. The fact that many think this is just another riverside murder song shows just how much depth there is in PJ Harvey’s songwriting.
3. “Take Me to the River” Talking Heads
This is originally an Al Green song, and as much as I respect Mr. Green, I prefer what the Talking Heads did with it. The Green version was based in religion with him turning to the waters to wash away his sins. In a genius move, David Byrne took these lyrics and tweaked them to be about a lover who the narrator can’t resist. He’s willing to give up everything just for her to “dip (him) in the water.” Leave it to Byrne to make baptism sound racy.
2. “Down by the River” Neil Young
One of Neil Young’s most mysterious songs, “Down By the River” has a chorus of “Down by the river, I shot my baby.” This would suggest that this is another song about a riverside murder, but the rest of the trippy lyrics speak of “taking a ride” and being dragged “over a river.” While Young has stayed pretty mum on the subject of the song, some have suggested that the river represents heroin (a motif discussed earlier with “Dam the River”) and he’s shooting himself up in order to take the ride. Again, it’s probably just about a river, but it’s fun to think about. Whatever the case, it’s a damn catchy song with distinctive guitar break-downs throughout. Just like a river, Young’s guitar solos are always erratic, fierce, and unrelenting.
1. “The River” Bruce Springsteen
As with most Springsteen songs, “The River” tells the story of the struggles of adulthood. This particular song tells the story of a couple who has been together since high school, spending their youth down at the river swimming and sunning. As the song progresses both the river and their lives change with time. By the end, the river that once tied them together and brought them joy is gone. It’s hard to imagine a river dying; about as hard as it is to see teenage dreams dry up.