Tag Archives: Canoe

Top 20 River Songs of All Time

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.

Honorable Mention:

“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” Killdozer
“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.


Filed under Top Songs Lists

Road Trip 2009: Weddings Woes

“Everyone has to believe in something. I believe I’ll go canoeing.”
Henry David Thoreau

The sexual display continued for another 30 minutes with the mammoth mama continuing to do all the work. Alex and I talked, occasionally checking in on the show. Each time we looked, she’d be in a different position, some of which I’ve never even seen in porn. Despite her persistence, she couldn’t get her drunken/stoned sloth of a boyfriend off.


It just kind of hangs there.

It just kind of hanged there.

Poor gal. Alex and I cracked open a couple bottles of Big Sky’s signature “Bobo’s Robust Porter” and waited out the storm, discussing the breweries planned for my summer road trip including Big Sky in Missoula. He talked about how his friend Josh was now brewing his own beer and even growing his own hops. I told him I’d like to brew myself, and began rambling through my list of NBA themed beers I’d like to create someday: Terry’s Porter, Mchale’s Pale Ale, Pistol Pete Wheat, Shaquille Oatmeal Stout, Bill’s Lambic Beer, Bird’s Trippel, Dee’s Brown, and of course, Charles Barley Wine. I know my dream beer team would be a copyright nightmare, but I find some weird joy out of coming up with new names.

Anything else would be uncivilized.

"Anything else would be uncivilized."

Our talk of home brewing reminded me of my good old friend Sewer who started brewing his own beers a few months prior and was already addicted. He told me he’d save a few of his concoctions for me to try this summer. I told him I may be able to stop through Havasu on my drive back down to Texas, but at the moment I wasn’t sure how I’d be able to do it. I wanted to see him since it had been two years, but regretted telling him I’d make it. I had let him down before, and knew I may be repeating history once again.

After staying down below for almost two hours, the rain stopped, and the waves died down. When we emerged to the gloomy surroundings, we noticed that the party boat and its occupants had vanished. Were we imagining things? Had the sea sickness made us have a horrific hallucination?

We sat back and breathed in the fresh Iowa air, gathering ourselves after the seasick debacle in our little fallout shelter. With it being so late we opted to stay put. No sailing for us. Plus, with the time already being seven, we’d only nibbled on some cheese popcorn while trapped below. My brother fired up the grill, and I sliced up some smoked gouda cheese to make our burgers extra special. We spent the rest of the night sharing stories, sipping tasty brews, eating juicy burgers, and I even pulled out the guitar to share a few of my new songs. When we finally went to bed, we slept like babies, lost in our porter infused dream land.

In the morning we had to be off the water early because Alex was scheduled to meet with a couple other distinguished freelance designers interested in possibly starting their own design firm. Although a bit skeptical, he decided to go and listen to what they had to say. Once off the lake and the boat was all sealed up and put away, he was already running late. Back at the house, he said a quick goodbye and headed off. I unpacked the cooler, and then left for the homeland, Estherville.

Back on the road, I seamlessly moved from suburbia into the rolling fields of green and gold that I love so much. In the spirit of Iowa admiration, I listened to Arthur Russell’s album “Love is Overtaking Me”, an ode to the Hawkeye State. The opening song “Close My Eyes” had a smile growing on my face, looking out on the rolling rows of soy beans; Arthur’s lyrics have never rung so true:

I close my eyes and listen
To hear the corn come out
Don’t you hear the stars they glisten
As we go in and out
Down where the trees grow together
And the western path comes to an end
See the sign it says clear weather
I’ll meet you tonight, my friend
Will the corn be growing a little tonight
As I wait in the fields for you
Who knows what grows in the morning light
When we can feel the watery dew

Back in Estherville, I was greeted by a table of mom’s home cooking and a new addition to the family – Stanley, a little black and tan dachshund with a motor that doesn’t stop and a penis that never quits peeing on the carpet. I would spend the next week trying to corral the puppy and endlessly drying thimble sized pee spots. Despite being annoyed by his antics, I grew to love the little guy in a few short days.

When not babysitting, I spent most of my time recording new songs in my basement studio, planning for my road trip, or walking through the woods in my parents backyard in hopes of getting some semblance of exercise before climbing mountains for a month. Paul and I talked daily, but still couldn’t plot out a plan. He had a lot on his mind that went beyond our trip. At the end of his first year of teaching at a small school in Idaho, he was informed that his contract would not be renewed. When he asked why, they pulled out a laundry list of issues including: calling a student a vagina and letting students play poker. I told him we could skip the trip this year to allow him time to find a job, but he said,”Nothing will stand in the way of our trip, Oceanman.” That’s what he kept calling me on the phone – Oceanman. I had no idea why, and couldn’t fathom taking a vacation when you were in need of a job, especially in this economy. But, I wasn’t going to argue; I needed someone to go with me on the trip, even if it meant at the expense of their career.

Okay class, time to turn in your hands.

"Okay class, time to turn in your hands."

That weekend I attended a wedding reception for my friend David’s little brother Jesse. While Jesse and Brooke got married in Vegas, they set up a reception in Estherville so others could celebrate. Along with David and my old friends Tony, Eric, and their respective wives, we arrived at the reception hall fashionably late. Our tardiness stemmed from our stop at the liquor store to fill the wives’ purses with rations.

Once there, we made the rounds, saying hi to both side’s of Jesse’s family, the Nitchals and Claytons. After about an hour we became bored, and what do you do when a wedding is tanking? Get tanked. Tony unleashed his Sailor Jerry and soon things picked up, or to be more specific, things picked up at our table. By the end of the night, a quick list of our antics included: sneaking into the basement of the dance hall where we got lost in the dark, creating a game that involved throwing crumpled beer label’s down Jenny’s shirt, and borrowing David’s Blackberry to take pictures of our pubes in the restroom.

Honey, why are there all these pictures of Gene Shalit on my phone?

"Honey, why are there all these pictures of Gene Shalit on my phone?"

The worst/best moment had to be when Tony grabbed the DJ’s mike and alienated half the family members in the crowd yelling, “Claytons suck! Nitchals rule!” It goes without saying that we were not liked by many of the people that evening. A group of Esthervillains who relocated to Phoenix (Ian, Lorrie, Whitacre, and his girlfriend Stephanie) made the trek up to pay homage to Jesse’s wedding and fortunately, they didn’t mind our borderline retardation. They were headed across the street to the townie bar Mac’s Top Hat, so we decided to join them for more unnecessary drinks.

My memory from that point is hazy. We had more beer, talked to some people, and somehow walked back to Tony’s house. At some point I got in an argument with Rhiannon on the phone (not sure about what) and passed out on the living room couch.

When I awoke, I was shirtless and wearing a pair of Tony’s gym shorts…weird. Instead of searching, I laid back down and returned to my sleep. I woke again to Tony coming downstairs. I stopped him and asked, “Hey, do you know where my clothes are?”

“You went downstairs for a while…why are you wearing my shorts?” I shook my pounding head in confusion. He headed downstairs and returned a bit later with all my belongings, which he found strewn throughout the basement.

“What happened last night?” I asked.

“You’re asking the wrong guy,” he chuckled.

I wouldn’t find out what happened that night until a month later after my road trip. The following events are based off of evidence found by Tony’s wife Ursella. According to her first hand account, two days after our drunken night, she went downstairs to do laundry. She had left a pile of dirty clothes on the concrete floor to be cleaned at a later date. This was to be the day.

As She picked up handfuls of clothes and tossed them into the washing machine, she discovered that the majority of the clothing felt damp. At first, she thought it must be from the washing machine leaking or something, but then the smell hit her. Urine. Rank, two day old urine. All over her clothes, Tony’s clothes, and yes, her daughters’ clothes. Based off the evidence, one can gather that at some point in the night I drunkenly staggered downstairs to use the basement bathroom (why I didn’t use the main floor restroom is beyond me).

This is a case for Pee-SI.

This is a case for Pee-SI.

Amidst the darkness and drunkenness, I entered the laundry room and relieved myself upon a pile of clothes. Why I removed my clothes and put on Tony’s shorts, this remains unexplained. Did I get pee on my own clothes or did I remove them on my way to the laundry room for easier access? We may never know.

Perhaps you will be able to help us solve this piss-tery.

"Perhaps you will be able to help us solve this piss-tery."

One thing I did remember the next day was discussing a canoe trip with Whitacre at the bar. Him and his Phoenix gang, along with some other Eville folks, were planning a trip down the Des Moines River for Monday afternoon. Knowing I’d only be home a few more days and that David and Tony were working all week, this would probably be my only opportunity to revisit the murky waters of the Des Moines. I naturally invited myself, and Whit welcomed me to join.

Two days later, refreshed and rejuvenated, I headed over to Jesse’s house with a 30 pack of Michelob Golden Light to meet the rest of the canoe crew. There would be 10 of us in all and only four boats. This would mean two boats of three, which can be a bit tricky. I knew I could back out as a kind gesture considering I invited myself, but I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to ride the river’s waves.

Out in the country, we loaded up the canoes with coolers and figured out who would ride where. I ended up being in the same boat as the newlyweds, Jesse and Brooke. She’d never canoed before so we had her sit in the middle on the cooler while we did the paddling, with me in back. She seemed a little apprehensive, so we reassured her that we knew what we were doing. Of course, only about 10 minutes later we hit a log hidden beneath the pesticide infested water, and we went in for a dip. We gathered our coolers and supplies easily, being in shallow water, and returned on our journey.

About an hour later we stopped along the banks next to what is known in those parts as the Moogley tree, a tall oak that reaches out over the water with a thick limb. Over the years many a drunken canoer has jumped off the tree’s mighty arm into the deep waters below, but on this day we were uncertain whether it was deep enough below. “Somebody swim out there to check if it’s deep enough this year,” Ian asked. I of course offered, believing my swimming skills could come in handy. Walking into the water, the power of the under tow pushed against my calves, and I quickly realized that the pull of the water may be too powerful to risk taking the already precarious jump. No one else wanted to attempt swimming out to the swirl of water, so we opted to drink on the banks for a while.

We continued on our way, enjoying the scenery. I’ve tube down a few Texas rivers in my time down south, but nothing compares to the riverside scenery in Iowa: cows chewing grass, barbed wire fences guiding your way, and pastures of yellow wheat greeting you in the wind.

Another hour in we crashed again, this time due to us driving straight into a tangle of trees that caught a hold of us and flipped us over. Brooke no longer found the idea of taking a swim funny, and seemed annoyed at Jesse and my steering ability. I’ll admit, it is definitely a skill to row and drink beer simultaneously.

One, Two, Three, DRINK!

"One, Two, Three, DRINK!"

It didn’t get much better for us around the bend, once again being pushed toward the shoreline of hanging trees. Jesse reached out toward the approaching limb and was able to soften our blow as I steadied the boat with my oar. Then, just as we were gaining control, I saw Brooke lean back toward the direction we were trying to avoid. “SPLASH!”

This time our crash wasn’t as simple due to the strong current, sending Brooke and our coolers up the river. She grabbed onto a root sticking out of the water and held on while Jesse and I used our past swim team skills to gather gear and beer. The rest of the canoes stopped on the sandy shores ahead to wait for us. I didn’t care about falling in; it’s part of the whole canoeing experience. But our new sailor didn’t seem as entertained, stomping up the shore to catch up with us.

Once she arrived, I thought I’d give the newbie some sailing tips. “Hey, I think we flipped that time because you leaned back. You want to keep steady when we get into the trees like that.” She seemed taken aback, but nodded and said okay. Oops. I could tell she didn’t appreciate my tutelage. I hurried to join the others, and cracked open a beer. While we talked about fantasy football, I noticed Jesse and Brooke by the shore arguing. Mid-conversation with Ian, I half-listened/ease-dropped on the fight in progress.

“Do you think it was my fault?”

“Well, if you leaned into it, yes.”

“Oh, so you agree that it’s my fault?”

“Look, we’ve been canoeing for a while. Don’t take it personal, he was just trying to help you out.”

Uh oh. I tiptoed to Jesse’s side in hopes of smoothing things over. “Sorry Brooke, I didn’t mean to say it was your fault. It could have been any of our faults. We were the ones that led the canoe into that mess.”

She cut me off. “NO. It’s MY fault” then walked away.

Jesse looked at me and shook his head. “Forget it. She’s being a baby.” We joined the rest of the group once again, while she sat by the canoe with a scowl. I felt bad now for pointing out her mistake and suggested we get back on the water.

Pushing off shore, the argument reconvened, with the two newlyweds trading barbs. I looked to the other canoes, filled with happy drunks, and here I sat like a kid watching his separated parents arguing. I looked to the neighboring canoe and yelled, “Hey Stephanie, do you want to switch boats?”

She looked to the two quarreling lovers and smiled. “No thanks.” As the hostility grew, I knew I had to escape the madness. Being stuck on a canoe with two people fighting isn’t nearly as fun as it sounds. Having canoed the river many times before, I knew the 4th street bridge, our stopping point, didn’t stand too far ahead. I began rowing, pulling the water beneath us with all my strength, feeling the muscles in my shoulders pop. The shouting voices of “Well you never…” and “You always do that!” fueled my engine, as I rowed to the mantra in my head, “Must escape. Must escape. MUST ESCAPE!”

Even I was impressed by the speed I’d built with the three of us in the canoe. While they used up all their energy tearing each other down, I focused my energy on the 4th street bridge in the distance, a light at the end of the spousal spat tunnel.

When we finally reached the loading ramp, I jumped into the shallow water and walked quickly up to shore where I could escape the sounds of discontent. Sitting on a rock, I rediscovered my solitude and relished in it, awaiting the rest of the canoe crew to arrive. Then, suddenly, Brooke came running up the ramp and ran past me across the gravel parking lot toward the entrance. Jesse walked up behind her and stood next to me watching his barefoot, bikini wearing wife running away.

“Where’s she going?” I asked.

“Who knows,” he said, turning back toward the shore, where the rest of the canoes were now arriving. I stood there for a moment, watching Brooke awkwardly run up the gravel road. I was amazed at what I witnessed that afternoon: two newlyweds, two days later, fighting. 

At that moment I began to wonder, what’s the point of marriage? Yes, it’s a lifelong promise, but people change. I’m a completely different person than I was ten years ago.  How can you make that commitment, that guarantee that you will love each other endlessly when you are most certainly going to change over time?  If they were fighting after two days, what would their canoe trips be like in 20 years? Standing there watching Brooke’s silhouette disappear over the hill, the thought of marriage made me shudder.

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