Rivers are one of nature’s most fascinating elements. Their mesmerizing flow inspires musicians, songwriters, and artists. Lyrically, rivers can be used as a powerful metaphor for several concepts.
Rivers are often used to represent travel and journeys. Other songs use their calming sound as a representation of peace. Although a river’s murky depths might conceal mysteries, they can create an ominous atmosphere in some tunes.
It’s hardly surprising that there are so many songs about rivers, given their deep symbology. This post features a lineup of the best songs about rivers to take you on a journey from the mountains to the ocean.
- 1. The River – Bruce Springsteen And E Street Band
- 2. Black Muddy River – Grateful Dead
- 3. River Deep, Mountain High – Tina Turner
- 4. Song of the Coulee Dam – Woody Guthrie
- 5. Down By The River – Neil Young
- 6. Red River Valley – Stevie Nicks
- 7. Down River – The Temper Trap
- 8. River – Joni Mitchell
- 9. Cry Me A River – Justin Timberlake
- 10. Moon River – Andy Williams
- 11. Down By The Water – PJ Harvey
- 12. River Man – Nick Drake
- 13. By The Rivers Dark – Leonard Cohen
- 14. Yes, The River Knows – The Doors
- 15. Take Me To The River – Talking Heads
- 16. Proud Mary – Creedence Clearwater Revival
- 17. River of Dreams – Billy Joel
- 18. Many Rivers to Cross – Jimmy Cliff
- 19. Ol’ Man River – Paul Robeson
- 20. River Euphrates – Pixies
- 21. Dam That River – Alice in Chains
- 22. Watching the River Flow – Bob Dylan
- 23. Rivers of Babylon – Boney M.
- It’s time to float down the river!
1. The River – Bruce Springsteen And E Street Band
Here, the river is a metaphor for the optimism and hope of youth. A couple’s hopes and affection for one another, like a river, eventually run dry as the song describes.
This heartbreaking tune beautifully depicts the anguish of having one’s goals and expectations shattered. In it, a teen pregnancy dashes a couple’s future plans and the dreams they’ve shared on their river dates. There follows a hasty marriage and many unanswered questions.
Springsteen is performing at the top of his game here. This captivating and emotional tune is performed as well as it is written.
2. Black Muddy River – Grateful Dead
This slow country ballad by psychedelic legends the Grateful Dead has a flowing feeling, just like drifting down a river. According to the writer of the song, Robert Hunter, it has a message relating to getting old and accepting that things change throughout your life. The singer is reconciling feelings about overcoming hardships in life and appreciating what we have in this natural world.
There are several references to nature, roses, and rivers in the lyrics, serving as a metaphor for life. I don’t want to influence your perception too much, so go and listen for yourself!
‘Big River’ is another song about rivers written by the Grateful Dead, which is equally great.
3. River Deep, Mountain High – Tina Turner
Iconic producer Phil Spector produced this classic soul track, released in 1966. It uses his wall of sound production technique to create a full and epic tone.
“Well, I’m gonna be as faithful as that puppy
And no, I ain’t never gonna let you down
‘Cause it goes on and on like a river flows”
This is a love song with more innocent lyrics compared to today’s standards. The main lyrics in the track’s title, “River Deep – Mountain High,” are metaphors for the scale of love the singer has for their partner. From the highs to the lows.
4. Song of the Coulee Dam – Woody Guthrie
This song about rivers is an old-school American folk song, recorded during WW2 in 1941. The American government hired woody to promote their hydroelectric dams through songwriting. These dams were used to generate electricity from the power of the rushing rivers.
“It’s that King Columbia River and the big Grand Coulee Dam
She heads up the Canadian Rockies where the rippling waters glide
Comes a-rumbling down the canyon to meet that salty tide”
“This Land Is Yours” is another song by Guthrie that touches on the majesty of nature and rivers. Both releases are part of the “Columbia River Ballads” collection, which contains 26 songs commissioned by the government.
It uses a classic skiffle blues style of music. Listening to it takes you back to a different time.
5. Down By The River – Neil Young
Neil Young’s ten-minute masterpiece alludes to Southern Gothic authors like Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner. Telling the story of a lover’s death, or murder, by the river.
Young distills a wide range of visceral emotions into this music. Despite the music’s spiky simplicity, it expresses a deep range of feelings. For example, the first minute of his guitar solo uses only a single note, but it works.
This is a superb example of Young’s prior work, including the outstanding rhythm guitar work of Danny Whitten. This long improvisation solidified his reputation as a talented musician.
A few people have drawn parallels between the river and heroin. This is also often called a “murder ballad,” which is a relatively common form in traditional folk music. The narrator murders the girl he loves in the song.
“Down by the river, I shot my baby.”
6. Red River Valley – Stevie Nicks
Stevie Nicks performs a modern rendition of this cowboy folk song, originally written in the 1890s. It tells the story of a heartbroken woman as her lover (a soldier) heads to war. It’s fascinating how these old songs are still alive today and are given a whole new lease of life by modern performers.
“From this valley, they say you are leaving,
I will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile”.
It’s just one example of how music can act like a time machine, transporting listeners to bygone times.
7. Down River – The Temper Trap
With rolling drums that flow like a river, this track from the pop band The Temper Trap is powerful and emotional. The lyrics are about getting on with your life and not letting the difficult things you’ve seen bother you. They hint that even when you get older, you’re not going to completely understand life. So just flow with it from day to day.
This is one of their lesser-known songs but is still a strong tune. You’ve probably heard of their most famous song, “Sweet Disposition,” which is fantastic!
8. River – Joni Mitchell
If you listen to this song in the right mood, you’ll long for the same river that Joni dreams of skating away on.
This is a slightly melancholic song about rivers, with a Christmas vibe. The song starts with a piano playing the tune to “Jingle Bells”. Then it changes pace and feel. It has mournful lyrics, touching on feeling lonely as your lover abandons you just before Christmas.
9. Cry Me A River – Justin Timberlake
Here is one of the most well-known songs about a cheating breakup, sung by Justin Timberlake. At the time of its release, many assumed that the song was about the breakup of his engagement to Britney Spears. They used a Spears impersonator in the song’s massively successful music video to cash in on these rumors.
“Why did you leave me all alone? Now you tell me you need me,” he adds. But he won’t listen to reason.
“You must have me confused with some other guy (I’m not like them baby)
The bridges were burned, Now it’s your turn (it’s your turn) to cry“
Timberlake is sarcastically asking for sympathy, although he’s already moved on past the relationship.
10. Moon River – Andy Williams
Audrey Hepburn made this tune famous in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. A huge list of musicians has covered it since then. That said, Andy Williams’s version is the most recognized, and we consider this to be his hallmark song.
This song is ubiquitous and highly recognizable. It has a romantic feel. The lyrics touch on the serendipitous nature of loving relationships.
“Moon river, wider than a mile.
I’m crossing you in style someday. “
11. Down By The Water – PJ Harvey
The song was PJ Harvey’s greatest success during her Alternative Rock era in the 1990s.
Its association with that period has led to its frequent use in contemporary nostalgic movies and TV shows. The 1990s-set television program Yellowjackets, starring Juliette Lewis and Christina Ricci, is one prime example.
12. River Man – Nick Drake
The title of Nick Drake’s 1969 song “River Man” immediately evokes images of rivers and flowing water.
Drake’s management claims that the artist himself considered the song “River Man” to be the album’s centerpiece because of its emotional impact.
Nick Drake only released three albums before his untimely demise. His first single was called “Five Leaves Left,” and it included the song “River Man.”
13. By The Rivers Dark – Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen’s “By the Rivers Dark” is another song that portrays the Babylonian exile.
And it does it in Cohen’s signature manner, with great nuance and a touch of gloom.
It’s from his 2001 album “Ten New Songs,” which once again showed Cohen’s charisma and distinctive, introspective originality.
14. Yes, The River Knows – The Doors
It is not only Bob Dylan who has been influenced by rivers. Jim Morrison also wrote songs about rivers, each with its own distinct sound.
Robby Krieger, the guitarist for The Doors, penned the majority of the song. He also says it’s one of his favorite pieces of music to write.
This track from The Doors’ Waiting For The Sun album was an outlier in their canon since it sounded more chilled than the rebel rock that made them famous.
15. Take Me To The River – Talking Heads
This gospel-influenced Al Green tune was popularized by the Talking Heads among new wave rock fans. It was surprisingly well received, probably thanks to the way David Byrne delivered it. Lyrics regarding baptism add to the overall spiritual feel.
“Take me to the river, drop me in the water
Push me in the river, dip me in the water
Washing me down, washing me”
Al Green wrote this song while on tour, spending three days in a rented home in Arkansas. Although Mr. Green undoubtedly produced a heartfelt masterpiece in that dwelling, his rendition of the song is not the only one.
For whatever reason, the version of Talking Heads released in 1978 is unmistakably theirs. At the very least, they may claim ownership on par with Reverend Green.
16. Proud Mary – Creedence Clearwater Revival
If you and some buddies are sitting around a campfire, this is a great song to get out the acoustic guitar and sing. It has a super catchy chorus that everyone knows subconsciously!
“Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on the river.”
Everyone around the campfire will be singing in harmony. Ike and Tina Turner also did an amazing cover of this song! This song was written about a maid who works for rich people in America. She reminds herself to keep rolling through life when the times get tough.
17. River of Dreams – Billy Joel
One of Billy Joel’s biggest hits, River of Dreams, blends gospel and doo-wop with lyrics about finding God in everyday life.
“Even though I know the river is wide
I walk down every evening and I stand on the shore”
We’ve all had those moments when we feel like we’re looking for something we’ve lost, but Mr. Joel makes it seem like a positive journey.
18. Many Rivers to Cross – Jimmy Cliff
This song, written by Jimmy Cliff, is about his efforts to break through in England. It’s inspired by his first success in Jamaica and has come to symbolize the idea of hardship. The song is the highlight of Jimmy Cliff’s acclaimed score for the 1970s Jamaican crime film “The Harder They Come.”
A river in the song is a metaphor for something difficult to overcome. A great case in point is this song by Jimmy Cliff, in which he admits he has work to do before he is accepted. The inspiration for the song came to him as he was crossing the English Channel, thus the reference to “the white cliffs of Dover.”
19. Ol’ Man River – Paul Robeson
The musical stage show and later movie “Show Boat” included a recording of this 1920s classic. The play was adapted from Edna Ferber’s book about a troupe of traveling entertainers. The song highlights the struggles of African Americans from the perspective of a dock worker on the Mississippi river. It uses a slow tempo and baritone voice to project notions of social class and strife.
Many artists have performed covers of this song. Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Django Reinhardt, The Beach Boys, Judy Garland, and Ray Charles are just a few of the artists that have recorded it. Nonetheless, many listeners regard Paul Robeson’s rendition as the gold standard.
20. River Euphrates – Pixies
The Euphrates is one of the most significant rivers in world history and the longest in Western Asia.
This historical lesson, however, ends there. This song, from their fantastic first album, “Surfer Rosa,” has less to do with waterways and more to do with… well, I’ll let your imagination fill in the blanks.
The Pixies are one of those classic punk/alternative rock bands that everybody needs to listen to. They have a lot of great tunes that are inspirational and entertaining.
21. Dam That River – Alice in Chains
This is the second tune on Alice In Chains’ most successful album, Dirt. This band is one of the biggest influences on grunge music, coming close to Nirvana’s level of fame.
The record is also one of the gloomiest albums to reach the Billboard charts. Alice’s drummer, Sean Kinney, is said to have broken a coffee table over Jerry Cantrell’s head, inspiring the song. After everything calmed down, Jerry penned the tune.
22. Watching the River Flow – Bob Dylan
Dylan has conflicting feelings toward the music industry. Most of the time, he was on another plane, writing works that would be remembered centuries from now, much like Shakespeare. In light of this, it’s hardly surprising that he eventually became dissatisfied.
Here, rather than fight against the current, he mulls over giving up and “watching the river flow” instead. Bob Dylan’s music has been analyzed time and time again, with good reason. He is a deep songwriter who distills complex themes into simple and catchy songs.
23. Rivers of Babylon – Boney M.
This is one of the best songs about rivers ever written, in my opinion. The Jamaican reggae group The Melodians initially recorded and wrote “Rivers of Babylon,” but the song’s popularity skyrocketed when Boney M covered it in 1978.
Some of the lyrics are from the biblical Psalm 137, which describes the hopes and dreams of the Jewish people during their captivity in Babylon.
Furthermore, the name “Babylon” alludes to an oppressive institution in Rastafarianism, which provides further depth to the song’s title.
It’s time to float down the river!
That concludes my list of the best songs about rivers. All of these river-based tunes are mesmerizing and inspirational. You’ve reached the end of your journey through this guide, but your journey of musical discovery has only just begun! Don’t forget to check out our other posts for more quality playlists and leave a comment on your favorite river songs!