The wild nature of the Colorado Plateau has long been a source of inspiration for creating art. From the millennia old storytelling rock art of indigenous peoples to the modern day river rat strumming a guitar, the place fosters expression. So who should we listen to? What songs will help us prepare for the river, or help us to remember its sublime existence? Here are a few of my go-to Colorado River songs.
The Goddess of Glen
No river trip, or a trip to the desert in general, would be complete without some Katie Lee. Katie is one of the most prolific river runners and early environmental activists. She wrote many novels and memoirs about the river, but her songs stand out as some of the most beautiful and nostalgic reflections of her time there. A song that resonates with me is “Ghosts of the Old San Juan.” I have floated the San Juan a couple times and the history and sorrow woven into her ballad bring the place to life for me. Similarly, “Song of the Boatman” will certainly get you yearning for some time in the canyons.
Three cheers for the bureau boys!
From the same generation of river running, Vaughn Short wrote a book of poems entitled Raging River, Lonely Trail. The most famous poem from this book is called “Floyd’s Void” and is a sardonic reflection on the damming of Glen Canyon, and the hope for its eventual return. Its refrain “let’s give three cheers for the bureau boys” is a nice sting to those that once dammed the Colorado River. There are several poems in that book that are perfect for reading around the campfire, that help to distill the scenery and the place steeped with history.
I wanna rock, ROCK!
For more a more contemporary way of communing with nature, and perhaps to get you excited for running some rapids, there are many excellent rock n roll songs that I listen to on the boat. I think The Grateful Dead is a perfect soundtrack for being out there. Both “Brokedown Palace” and “Uncle John’s Band” are on my playlist. “Fire on the Mountain” also channels the colors of the red rock very well. Creedence Clearwater Revival is another classic that will get you amped for going through white water. Throw on “Proud Mary” or “Bad Moon Rising” and head downstream! For a mellower take, “Go Your Own Way” by Fleetwood Mac exemplifies how we all take a river run differently.
Everybody together now!
Ideally someone has brought a guitar along. If they’re worth their salt, they’ve practiced a couple great singalongs. Katie Lee’s “Rapids Ahead” is really fun if you’re camping above a bigger run. Also, the classic that everyone knows “Wagon Wheel” is a must when you’re sitting on a sandy beach at sunset in the company of friends, surrounded by the most amazing scenery anywhere in the world.
Where to find em and what it all means
Almost all of the songs discussed here are available on the Holiday River Expeditions Spotify playlist “Holiday River Rhythms” which is definitely worth checking out. Many of Katie Lee and Vaughn Short’s books are available on Amazon. Music is all open to interpretation, these are just a few of the songs and poems that have spoken to me over the years. I hope they, and others, help you discover more about yourself in the wild.
PS: Silence is golden
While music and poetry are amazing on the river, it goes without saying that the best soundtrack for the outdoors is none at all. Listen to the wind ruffle cottonwood leaves, the churning of water under the boat, or the call of the canyon wren.
Jack Stauss moved to Salt Lake City in 2008 in pursuit of big mountains and wide open spaces. He has spent the last several years both enjoying and advocating for public lands and free flowing rivers. While he’s not typing on his keyboard, he will be backcountry skiing in the Wasatch or exploring Utah’s wild deserts. Read some of his environmental musings at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at @jackstauss on Instagram