7 River Songs for Every JourneyNovember 23, 2020
By Kate Savage
Aldo Leopold had a word to say about the Good Life (Note: Aldo, who wrote A Sand County Almanac, was a fellow who could hunt and trap and bro-out with the best of them but at the very base of his heart wanted most to cajole us into “thinking like a mountain,” instead of blustering about cutting down forests and massacring predators). This is what he said: “The good life on any river may depend on the perception of its music, and the preservation of some music to perceive.”
While we fight to keep the music of our rivers, this list is a celebration of the music that sticks with us, and all the river-singers who carry a whiff of the water into our dishwashing and daily commute.
Listen to a few, and sway along to the good life:
Rivers are the base-camp of baptisms and revivals, and “Hallelujah,” without any instrumentation besides a finger-snap, hearkens back to the old gospel traditions that kept close to rivers. The iconic iteration of river-gospel songs is “Down in the River to Pray” by Alison Krauss, but all of them are based on the old spirituals like “Deep River,” sung by Odetta.
MaMuse has been described as “what a meadow would sound like if it could sing,” but the braided voices in this song are closest to braided rivers. When MaMuse sings “I will lay my troubles down by the water, where the river will never run dry,” they go further than lovely harmony and counter-cadences. The two voices (Karisha Longaker and Sarah Nutting) take gentle hold of that little knot of worries that sits at the base of your throat, at the top of your heart. They’ll soothe you smooth and braid you back to shape, and verily you just might feel redeemed.
For a modern take on the old plea for the river to wash your soul clean, listen to Ibeyi’s remarkable piece “River.”
Since waters have always been the nodes where communities gather, they’re also the place of community protest. Rivers run deep in the songs of social movements, whether it’s the Civil Rights promise that Just like a tree standing by the water side, We shall not be moved, or Sam Cooke crooning:
I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river I’ve been running ever since.
It’s been a long time coming, but I know
A change is gonna come.
In John Prine’s river song the water is more than metaphor. He wrote “Paradise” to mourn the death of a town on the Green River in Kentucky from strip-mining:
Daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay?
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.
Like many other Prine tunes, the song’s been covered by dozens of other singers, and is still a common rallying tune at public actions to protect rivers and mountains.
3. “Rocks and Water” by Deb Talan
Deb Talan probably doesn’t know it, but she’s written an anthem for women river-runners. No other song personifies so well their mix of clear-sighted ruggedness (she sings “I don’t fear the dark anymore ‘Cause I’m become all that”) with fierce commitment to others (“I will be with you even then, Even when I cannot see your face anymore). Deb Talan is best known as half of the folk-pop duo The Weepies, but “Rocks and Water” is the kind of song you sing by yourself, while you’re racing down a canyon and cradling the lives of others in your trusty boat.
This song is mighty jaunty for someone love-lorn and weeping on the banks of the river that took away his woman. But I’m not complaining.
The tears that I cried for that woman gonna flood you Big River,
And I’m gonna sit here till I die.
If you’re looking for that cry-into-your-coffee-cup river-love-song experience, there’s always Joni Mitchell’s “River.” Though you could do a lot worse than listen to that heart-breaker “River of Sorrow” by Antony and the Johnsons.
(Also don’t forget Johnny’s other great river songs, like “Five Feet High and Rising” and “Run Softly, Blue River.”)
5. “River Euphrates” by Pixies
What do you do when you’ve driven out the Gaza Strip too fast and run out of gas?
Ride a tire down the River Euphrates.
I’ll be honest that the main reason to include this one is how great it is to sing in your head while you’re going through the big rapids (don’t sing it out loud, though. It’s probably intolerable to the river guides who are trying to focus).
6. “Cool Clear Water” by Sons of the Pioneers
When my cowboy grandpa died all the great-aunts gathered at the front of the church to sing this river song. When they lowered their blazing-blue-eyeshadowed eyelids to hit the quivering high notes, all five of my siblings erupted in doubled-over laughter, poorly disguised as sobs of grief.
Sure, this song is about the lack of a river. But sometimes the people who can sing the most forcefully about water are the ones furthest from it. That is what makes this the anthem of the desert rivers, and the blue-eyeshadowed cowboys who love them.
7. “The Moldau” by Bedrich Smetena
You can keep your dainty waltzes of the Beautiful Blue Danube and the tidy little Water Music that Handel wrote to ferry the king about the Thames. The rivers of the West don’t waltz like that and they don’t have a lick of respect for royalty. What they do have is something that Czech composer Bedrich Smetana grabs at in the moody flow of a melody that can’t be caught, from the first timid headwaters (two flutes flitting about each other) clear down to the rapids (brass! kettledrum!). Many composers have created orchestral music about rivers, but Smetana tried to give the place its own voice, both in its mud and its mermaids. The stately rivers of most classical music might turn their noses up at our wild mess of canyons, but Smetana’s Bohemian river is sister-souls with the wildest we’ve got.
In Aldo Leopold’s essay on river music he writes:
“The song of a river ordinarily means the tune that waters play on rock, root, and rapid. [. . .] This song of the waters is audible to every ear, but there is other music in these hills, by no means audible to all. To hear even a few notes of it you must first live here for a long time, and you must know the speech of hills and rivers. Then on a still night, when the campfire is low and the Pleiades have climbed over rimrocks, sit quietly and listen for a wolf to howl, and think hard of everything you have seen and tried to understand. Then you may hear it — a vast pulsing harmony — its score inscribed on a thousand hills, its notes the lives and deaths of plants and animals, its rhythms spanning the seconds and the centuries.”
“The Moldau” is as close as it gets to hearing the vast pulsing harmony straight from YouTube. Trust me: you’ve got fourteen minutes in your life for this. Listen.
Are you mad I included Smetana and not “Proud Mary” by CCR? And how could I leave off Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” (even if it has been sorely abused by those singing trout gag-gifts)?
Post your own must-hear river songs in the comments below!
Written by Kate Savage, desert wanderer, river lover and freelance writer. Check out Holiday’s River Currents blog for more of Kate’s writing soon!