American roots music — rock, blues, folk and country — contemplates and celebrates rivers perhaps more than any other habitat type or environmental issue. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a quick tour.
Forests? I’m drawing a blank.
Wetlands? There’s “Born on the Bayou,” but I don’t know of much else (and bayous are often rivers, anyhow).
Deserts? The Eagles went there to sleep beneath a million stars, and that sounds nice, but America went there with a horse with no name … and that was just silly.
Mountains, oceans? Well, I guess they may be up there as well. Climate change? The Scorpions can Rock You Like a Hurricane. (OK, that was a cheap shot, as Neil Young, Bob Dylan and even Jimmy Buffet have better hurricane songs. How about Blondie’s The Tide is High?).
But rivers are intertwined throughout American roots music. They twist and bend through American history, and they provide the rhythmic backdrop for many treasured myths and stories. Rivers rise and fall like a blues guitar solo … and they meander off into the hazy, distant unknown, just as a great song can transport your mind to a more romantic place.
So below I offer my 10 favorite river songs, not in any ranked order. (Listen to a mix of eight of them.) I’d love to hear from readers with any thoughts on these songs and, more importantly, their own suggestions for favorite river songs and reasons.
Woody Guthrie, Roll On Columbia: We tend to associate opposition to dams with left-leaning populism, so this song is a good reminder of the complex realities of dams. Although conservationists now emphasize the loss of salmon, it’s instructive to remember that at one time providing electricity to rural America by harnessing the mighty Columbia was a theme celebrated by America’s greatest folk singer with lyrics such as “Your power is turning our darkness to dawn, so roll on Columbia roll on.” (Admittedly, he was contracted by the Bonneville Power Administration to write songs, but he seemed generally inspired by the scale and power of the Columbia dams.)
Randy Newman, Burn On: Newman’s maudlin arrangement and whimsical lyrics deftly capture the cognitive dissonance of a river — the Cuyahoga — catching fire. Several other songs have referenced the fire — including REM’s Cuyahoga and Adam Again’s River on Fire. But note that the river has recovered considerably, as celebrated in songs by Alex Bevan and Crookneck Chandler as well as in the title of a tasty beer, Burning River Pale Ale, from Great Lakes Brewing Company.
Johnny Cash, Five Feet High and Rising: The Man in Black singing about a flood. Enough said.
Neil Young, Down by the River: Although I certainly don’t emulate the lyrics (which will become obvious if you listen to them carefully), I think my approach to work is a bit like Neil’s guitar solo here. Like my home office and inbox, his playing is loose and sloppy and sometimes mired in writer’s block (observe the single note he plays for almost 30 seconds), but he rises above the confusion and the mess with zeal, persistence and sheer force of will (don’t tell my wife, who will see this as an excuse to not straighten the place up).
Aaron Neville, Louisiana 1927: Written by Randy Newman, the song chronicles the heartbreak of the catastrophic 1927 Mississippi River flood, which displaced 700,000 people. I first heard this song played at benefits during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the words mournfully echoed the sense of loss and despair of late summer 2005: “Some people got lost in the flood, some people got away all right. Louisiana … Louisiana ... they’re trying to wash us away ... they’re trying to wash us away.”
Emmanuel Jal, Many Rivers to Cross: When Jal, a Sudanese-born hip-hop and soul artist, sings about crossing rivers as one of life’s challenges in this adaptation of a Jimmy Cliff song, he’s not being metaphorical. After serving as a coerced child soldier, he escaped his captors and, during his flight, had to swim across rivers filled with crocodiles and hippos. I challenge anyone to read his story and listen to his album Warchild and not feel overwhelmed with amazement for what he’s done co-mingled with heartache for the ongoing misery in war-torn parts of the world.
Ike and Tina Turner, Proud Mary: Although many people think this song is called “Rolling on the River,” and it was originally written by Creedence Clearwater Revival, I like Ike and Tina’s version — at turns sultry, exuberant and rollicking. Also exuberant and rollicking — but mercifully not sultry — was a version of the song performed by Conservancy freshwater staff at a “talent show” during the closing banquet of a river management conference in China. Joining us on stage as backup singers were some of the most senior leaders of America’s two biggest water-management agencies. Despite the all-star line-up, we came in second in the talent competition to a guy who sang Moon River a cappella (although it should be noted he was executive vice president of the hydropower company that sponsored the conference).
Led Zeppelin, When the Levee Breaks: The effort to reform floodplain management in the United States should draw sustenance from this song’s relentless drums, wailing harmonica and nasty slide guitar. “Crying won’t help you, praying won’t do you no good ... When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move.”
The Tragically Hip, Chagrin Falls: This Canadian band named their song after the small town in northeast Ohio (population 2,500) where I live. To them, its name seemed the geographical embodiment of an emotional descent to a low place. Despite the somber name, Chagrin Falls is actually a very pretty and friendly town that is centered around a river and picturesque waterfall.
Bruce Springsteen, The River: I’ve already written about my love for Springsteen’s music. Here he uses the river as a symbol of youthful optimism and love that cannot be sustained into adulthood in a dying industrial town:
And pull her close just to feel each breath she’d take.
Now those memories come back to haunt me, they haunt me like a curse.
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?
That sends me down to the river, though I know the river is dry …"
What are your favorites? Add them in the comments below.
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