A canoe, participating in the "Katahdin 100" (the annual Penobscot Tribe spiritual journey by canoe, kayak, war canoe and some on foot, from Indian Island up the Penobscot RIver 100 miles to the base of Mount Katahdin), in early morning mist on the Penobscot River in Maine. Photo © Bridget Besaw

A River of Song: Channeling My Top 10 Tunes

World Water Day needs a soundtrack, and American roots music provides a flood of songs about rivers. Rock, blues, folk and country celebrate rivers perhaps more than any other habitat type or environmental issue.

So below I offer my 10 favorite river songs, not in any ranked order. I’d love to hear from any readers with their thoughts on these songs and, more importantly, their own suggestions for favorite river songs. What’s your soundtrack for World Water Day?

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. Johnny Cash: “Five Feet High and Rising.” The Man in Black singing about a flood. Enough said.
  4. Adam Acuragi: “Bottom of the River.” Check out this impromptu live performance captured by Take Away Show.  Adam and bandmates form a semi-circle in the Chelsea flea market and belt out a rollicking version of this song.  Shoppers’ reactions range from puzzled to pure joy—observe the beaming woman just before the two-minute mark in the video, illustrating that songs about rivers just make you feel good.
  5. 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.”
  6. Jeff Opperman
    Jeff Opperman

    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.

  7. Townes Van Zandt: “Texas River Song.”  Although Texas may be mired in an epic drought, Van Zandt’s geographic tour of Texas reminds us that, even in a parched country, “there’s many a river that waters a land.” Lyle Lovett does a great version.
  8. Led Zeppelin: “When the Levee Breaks.” The effort to reform floodplain managementin 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 song was originally written by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie and chronicles the same 1927 Mississippi flood as “Louisiana 1927.” That flood inspired a great number of songs and left a huge mark on American music, accelerating  the great northward migration of African Americans to cities like Chicago, where the Delta Blues got plugged in and eventually became rock and roll.
  9. 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.
  10. 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:

At night on them banks I’d lie awake
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.

(Image: Jeff Opperman sings the delta blues. Source: Jessica Scranton.)

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  1. Talking Heads: “Take Me to the River.” And Nick Drake’s “River Man.”

    She doesn’t technically count, but the Dr. Who character River Song (played by the amazing Alex Kingston) is worth honorable mention.

  2. River! by Joni Mitchell

  3. “Honeysuckle Blue” by Drivin’ and Cryin’ has a memorable line about the Chattahoochee. And in “West Texas Teardrops”, the Old 97’s present their theory on the creation of the Rio Grande:
    “Though I felt a lonesome feeling in Dulce New Mexico,
    I was happier than I’d ever been in my El Paso home.
    But I thought about the woman whom I left to roam the land,
    And I cried so much it dug a rut they call the Rio Grande.”

  4. Old Man River by Paul Robeson is a withering indictment of capitalism and the vanity/futility of human endeavors.

  5. My mind goes immediately to American Standards, i.e. “Deep River,” “Cry Me a River.” I have an enduring image from the movie ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ of a melancholy Holly Golighty, Audrey Hepburn, wistfully strumming on the fire escape of her New York City apartment singing “Moon River.”

    Perhaps more than any other environmental metaphor, a river represents transition and the passage of time. Rivers can be serene, angry, soothing, a destroyer as well as a genesis, but always rolling on.

    One last pop suggestion, Duran Duran’s “Her Name is Rio.”

  6. The original “When the Levee Breaks” was produced by the blues musical duo Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie. In the first half of 1927, the Great Mississippi Flood ravaged the state of Mississippi and surrounding areas. It destroyed many homes and ravaged the agricultural economy of the Mississippi Basin. Many people were forced to flee to the cities of the Midwest in search of work, contributing to the “Great Migration” of African Americans in the first half of the 20th century. During the flood and the years after it subsided, it became the subject of numerous Delta blues songs, including “When the Levee Breaks”, hence the lyrics, “I works on the levee, mama both night and day, I works so hard, to keep the water away” and “I’s a mean old levee, cause me to weep and moan, gonna leave my baby, and my happy home”. The song focused mainly on when more than 13,000 residents in and near Greenville, Mississippi evacuated to a nearby, unaffected levee for its shelter at high ground. The tumult that would have been caused if this and other levees had broken was the song’s underlying theme.
    (Shamelessly lifted straight from Wikipedia)

  7. PJ Harvey- Down by the water
    Sea Wolf- uh, most of their songs!
    RHCP- Under the bridge

  8. My current favorite river song (not on this list) is the absolutely haunting “Cold River” by John Hiatt off the Master of Disaster album.

    Neil Young’s “Down by the River” is also a favorite. (I have five versions of this on my iTunes list)

    Other favorites (in no particular order):

    Down to the River to Pray (Who can forget the O Brother Where Art Thou version from Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, et al? )

    Dreadful Wind and Rain (aka. Oh, the Wind and Rain) (traditional — look for a Jerry Garcia version)

    Meet Me by the River’s Edge (Gaslight Anthem)

    Come to the River (The Jayhawks)

    Many Rivers to Cross (Jimmy Cliff)

    Big River (Johnny Cash — often covered by The Grateful Dead)

    Texas River Song (Townes VanZandt)

    Rivers of Babylon (Melodians, from The Harder They Come soundtrack)

    River Man (Nick drake)

    James River Blues (Old Crow Medicine Show)

    Find the River (REM)

    Alanson, Crooked River (Sufjan Stevens)

    Mississippi (Bob Dylan, Love & Theft)

    OH — and can’t forget the band: Okkervil River (The Stage Names and Stand Ins are both solid albums, anything prior to that isn’t worth the ten bucks on iTunes.)

    As for Forests, here’s four off the top of my head:

    Deep Elm Blues (traditional)

    Wildwood in the Pines (Johnny Cash)

    Where Did You Sleep last Night? (Leadbelly/Nirvana cover)

    Remember the Mountain Bed (Woody Guthrie, Billy Bragg and Wilco)

  9. everything i could think of off the top of my head

    many rivers to cross – jimmy cliff
    river song – dennis wilson
    stream running over – the apples in stereo
    peace like a river – paul simon
    the cool, cool river – paul simon
    river – joni mitchell
    down in the river to pray – traditional?
    fall in a river – badly drawn boy
    find the river – rem
    lazy river – louis prima
    munky river – presidents of the united states of america
    red river valley – traditional?
    river man – nick drake
    sitting by the riverside – the kinks
    black water – doobie brothers
    up on cripple creek – the band
    cripple creek ferry – neil young
    muddy water – roger miller (from the musical “big river”)

  10. OKAY, That was fun: here are the songs I can think of right now about rivers or the concept is around rivers: not really favorites but they have a river theme!

    Watching The River Flow: Bob Dylan

    River Euphrates: pixies

    Let it Ride: Ryan Adams

    River of Jordan: Janis Joplin

    Mississippi River: Janis Joplin

    River: Joni Mitchell

    Proud Mary: Creedance Clearwater

    Lazy River: Louis Armstrong

    Moonriver: Andy Williams

    Whiskey River: Willie Nelson

    Into the Mystic (river;0)) Van Morrison

    Cry me a River: Ella Fitzgerald

    The River in Reverse: elvis costello

    Rivers of Bablyon

    Badfish: Sublime :0)

    The River: Garth Brooks

    The River of Dreams: Billy Joel

  11. An eclectic, lame-free 10-song setlist:

    Sun Kil Moon, “Carry Me Ohio”

    Doves, “Caught by the River”

    Drive-By Truckers, “TVA” and “Uncle Frank” (two views of the TVA)

    The Clash, “London Calling” (“live by the river!”)

    REM, “Cuyahoga”

    The Pogues, “The Broad Majestic Shannon”

    The Refreshments, “Tributary Otis”

    Dennis Wilson, “River Song”

    A.A. Bondy, “False River”

  12. What about Paradise by John Prine? That’s got “freshwater blog” written all over it–nostalgia, riparian death, pillaging coal companies, and a soggy water burial to top it all off.

  13. Mine is “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” by Pete Seeger.

  14. Ride the River by eric clapton and jj cale
    whiskey river by willie nelson
    swamp river days by john fogerty
    laughing river by greg brown

  15. “Where I Go” by Natalie Merchant is one of my all-time favorite songs:

    I go to the river to soothe my mind/to ponder over the crazy days in my life/just sit and watch the river flow…

  16. Jeff.. perhaps you didn’t want to list too far in the direction of Ohio rivers, but you have to include “On the Banks of the Ohio,” a traditional folk tune in which a lovesick man murders the object of his unrequited affection and leaves her on the banks of the Ohio River. Yeah, it’s harsh, but tender enough for Joan Baez (and Cash and Doc Watson, I beleive).

  17. Midnight Oil’s “River Runs Red” is a great song with a powerful environmental message.

  18. Great list of songs. And there is a whole genre of music inspired by the big, and beautiful Mississippi River and the landscape and culture that it nourished – the Mississippi Delta Blues.

    Did anyone mention Black Water, by The Doobie Brothers?

    Another, albeit silly, wetland marsh song is Lump by The Presidents of the United States of America.

  19. How about “Up A Lazy River” by Bing Crosby? That’s going way back.

  20. Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello’s River in Reverse…Chilling and powerful.

  21. “Bamboo” by the late, great Dave Van Ronk.

  22. Though our minds be filled with questions
    In our hearts we’ll understand
    When the river meets the sea

    I think that’s my favorite river song. As performed by Emmett Otter and his mom in Jim Henson’s “Emmett Otter’s Jugband Christmas.” It’s soulful. It’s touching. It’s Muppets. I think we all agree that those are the three pillars of song.

    I’ll second Bob on “Take Me to the River”, but I have a preference for the Al Green version.

    “Washing of the Water” by Peter Gabriel. I’ve not always been his biggest supporter, but there’s something about his grainy falsetto and the simple arrangement that makes this song easy to digest.

    River, show me how to float
    I feel like I’m sinking down
    Thought that I could get along
    But here in this water
    My feet won’t touch the ground
    I need something to turn myself around

    Familiar river themes present – cleansing, renewal and a baptism in hope as the waters push us towards the horizon. It’s what’s not there that helps me hear the message though. The absence of polyrhythms and competing layers of sound makes some much needed space to feel his plea. The bridge almost gets away from him, but it’s a drum, a piano, a voice and the river that keeps it on track.

    Lastly, one that you might not have heard of is on “The Power of One” Soundtrack. It’s called “Limpopo River Song” performed by the Bulawayo Church Choir. The soundtrack as a whole is pretty remarkable but this song in particular is a really cool example of African choral music, pulsating back and forth in a series of call and response phrases. Also a good example of people who appreciate and honor their relationship with a water source. I can’t remember what the translation is, but the chirping of the chorus leader and the booming rebuttals resonate with enough meaning to conquer the language barrier. If you haven’t heard this soundtrack before, I highly recommend it. You can skip the Teddy Pendergrass track (no offense Teddy, RIP), but the rest of it is powerful stuff.

    So, there’s my $.02. As we continue to fight to protect these sources of life (and commerce), maybe we could use a river that fights back? River Tam from the Firefly/Serenity series might do the trick. What? Bob referenced Dr. Who, so I figured fictional characters were fair game.

  23. How about
    Green River by Creedence Clearwater Rivival
    Old River by Hazel Dickens

  24. Katie Lee should be somewhere on any list of river songs. Almost anything from her Folkways album Songs of the Colorado River, or others.

    Sometimes Dylan’s “Watching the River Flow” is just the right tune.

    And I like the Talking Heads’ version of “Take Me to the River”.

  25. Erie Canal, by anyone.

  26. Clearly, Jeff, you haven’t hit the refresh button on your music archive since pre-itunes days when wife, kids and work were but a misty dream on road trips through God’s country and late nights in the smokey bars of Austin, TX. Oh Little Sisters….

    Missing from your list is Adam Arcurgi’s tune Bottom of the River.’ Here’s a link to a OneTakeNYC clip shot in the bottom of NYC.


  27. No need to be US-centric! How could we forget the finger-snappin “Song of the Volga Boatmen”? And of course the Blue Danube waltz.

  28. Wow! Lefties and river songs! You say homemade peanut butter and I say sugar-free blueberry preserves! I would like to add the album “Johnny Cash sings story songs about Rivers and Trains (high-speed commuter trains that replace highways clogged with carbon burping SUVs, I am sure) and Mississippi River Blues by Big Bill Broonzy!

  29. Don Henley’s “Good-bye to a River” is one of the most moving songs ever about a river.

  30. “Moon River”

  31. “Watching the River Run” by Kenny Loggins

  32. Love the post!

    “Black Muddy River” by The Grateful Dead

  33. Somebody mentioned Okkervil River: “OH — and can’t forget the band: Okkervil River (The Stage Names and Stand Ins are both solid albums, anything prior to that isn’t worth the ten bucks on iTunes.)” I highly disagree with your assessment that anything prior to that isn’t worth $10.00…their first record “Don’t Fall in Love with Everyone You See” has the beautiful “Okkervil River Song,” and “Black Sheep Boy” is simply a masterpiece. You are seriously short-changing yourself if you exclude these two….

  34. Black Muddy River and Big River, both by the Grateful Dead. Roll on, Jerry 🙂

  35. some of my favorites, wonder why so many people are interested in this?

    “Sea Refuses No River” Pete Townshend

    “Wash My Soul In The River’s Floor” Archie Roach

    “Wade In The Water” (never knew until checking that this had both a biblical reference, as well as instructional for escaping slaves to throw dogs off their trail)

  36. Lots of river songs to be sure and lots of them I like, but how about all Wild Places — the song and the album, “The Wild Places” by Dan Fogelberg

  37. Danny gets bonus points for the Pogues.

    How about an ‘honorable mention’ wetlands song: “Jambalaya (on the bayou)” by Hank Sr.

  38. Wow! you live in CF, too?
    Mikey and Brian’s mom

  39. The River song! It is usually sang by my mother before I sleep:) Is was about 16 years ago:) It is such a nice song. i love it>

  40. Check ‘Don’t Killowatt’ and ‘What you don’t know can hurt you’ at Million Dollar Nile.

  41. Take Me to the River…David Byrne

  42. Though its not really about a river, I like Carly Simon’s “Let the River Run” anyway. Thanks for reminding me of “Roll on Columbia”. We used to belt that out during music sessions in the third grade (along with a lot of other rootsy stuff) a long time ago.

  43. Oh! I’ve got one — “Let the River Run” by Carly Simon (the theme from “Working Girl”). Very soaring and anthemic.

    Wow, you posters surely listen to a lot of obscure, little-known artists! Many of the songs and artists on these lists are songs I’ve never heard of done by artists I’ve never heard of.

    Personally, I prefer Creedence’s version of “Proud Mary” to Ike and Tina Turner’s. Ike and Tina’s version is too frenetic for my taste.

    Just the other day I was trying to think of who did “Black Water.” Was it the Doobies? Somehow that doesn’t sound right to me. Maybe I’m just misremembering.

  44. Oops! I neglected to mention “Blue Bayou” by both Roy Orbison and Linda Rondstadt. {:-)

  45. Wow great songs, gee the memories of listening to “Black Water” while riding the schoolbus. “89 – W L S !”

    I don’t have the complete ref but how about Crosby Nash Stills (and maybe Young) from Daylight Again … ummm forgot the name … lyrics “river seems dreamlike” … “maybe he’s crazy for the deep” … “while they dance …” Cool dreamy song.

    Ok, to name a local Chicagoland artist, Lee Murdock has an entire compilation of Great Lakes and rivers freshwater songs. Of fishermen, sailors, steam and canvas. His song about the Ilinois & Michigan canal navies (Irish workers) is haunting.

  46. River by Yonder Mountain String Band!!!!!!! There are also several river songs by Sam Bush!

  47. an old song I learned at camp – heard it the first time when I was 7–
    Peace I ask of thee oh river,
    peace, peace, peace
    When I learn to live serenely,
    cares will cease.
    From the hills I gather courage
    Visions of the days to be
    Strength to lead
    and faith to follow
    all are given unto me
    Peace I ask of thee, oh river
    Peace, peace, peace

  48. Old Man River

  49. These are all such great offerings.
    I didn’t see;
    The Water us Wide, I can’t Cross Over (Traditional?)
    River of Love, by the incredible T Bone Burnett (sp?)
    Same River Twice, by another fantastic artist that receives no attention for his songwriting and singing abilities, Darryl Purpose

  50. Many of what’s already mentioned, and:

    “Cross that River” — Allan Harris
    “Too Late” — Little Axe
    “Ride Across the River” — Dire Straits
    “Dump it in the River” — Terrence Boylan
    “Crystal River” — Mudcrutch (Tom Petty)
    “Somewhere Down Crazy River” — Robbie Robertson
    “The River Must Flow” — Gino Vanelli

  51. When the Levee Breaks is probably my fav from the list. I also like Ride Across the River as dave mentioned above. Good find

  52. Troll for Trout – Canoe Song, River Song
    (two great songs about rivers)

  53. River by Grada

  54. Sun Kil Moon has a river song I like: “Carry On Ohio” mentions two rivers, the Ohio and one of its feeders, the Tuscarawas – ‘tho the stanza with this named river suggests it flows into the Erie (which of course it does not).

  55. River Guard by Smog

  56. Just stumbled across this (a google hit) as I’ve got a similar post/inquiry going on my FB page right now. Great suggestions made by some obviously musically literate folks! Here are two that I didn’t note on anyone’s list: “Tear Stained Eye” by Son Volt and “Get Down River” by the Bottle Rockets.

  57. “River On Fire” by Adam Again
    “Bells On The River” Crippled Black Phoenix

  58. The beautiful and haunting “In the River” by THE CALL.

  59. Wow, a bit late to the conversation but I can’t believe no one pulled out Shenandoah. Springsteen did a great cover on his Pete Seeger tribute, and Darol Anger’s Heritage CD has some lovely covers as well.

  60. River by Yonder Mountain String Band

    Brokedown Palace by the Grateful Dead

    My daughter’s name is River for Brokedown Palace, but she has decided that River by YMSB is “her” song.

  61. Watching the River Run – Loggins and Messina

  62. “Big River” is the classic song of the Mississippi, where the hero chases his woman from its source near St. Paul all the way down to the Gulf.

  63. Slaid Cleaves “Below”

    It is the story about the 1940 flooding of Flagstaff and the Dead River in Maine. Poetically chilling…

    You Tube song with accompanying video and images of the event:

    I love all the comments and songs, it was hard for me to think of one that had not already been mentioned!

  64. Larry Stevens of Stevens Ecological Consulting and one of the best-known scientists and river guides of the Colorado River in Grand Canyon sings “The Song of the Humpback Chub”. The Federally endangered Humpback is one of the most iconic fish in North America and Larry has been instrumental in its reintroduction into several Colorado-river tributaries in Grand Canyon. The song is funny and well-produced, worth a listen!

  65. Hi Jeff. Here are my favorites (some are covers):

    Down To The River To Pray Alison Krauss
    Meeting Across The River Bruce Springsteen
    The River Bruce Springsteen
    Matamoras Banks Bruce Springsteen
    Brazos River Song Townes Van Zandt/Buck Ramsey
    Ride Across The River Dire Straits
    River Of Tears Eric Clapton
    Laughing River Greg Brown
    Big River Johnny Cash
    Down by the River Lucy Kaplansky
    Texas River Song Lyle Lovett
    River Of Life Neville Brothers
    The Riverboat Song Ocean Colour Scene
    The Cool, Cool River Paul Simon
    Find the River REM
    Same Ol’ River (Live) Sam Bush

  66. I can’t believe that no one mentioned “The Ballad of Easy Rider”, by Roger McGuinn/The Byrds. It’s probably one of the best ever river songs.

  67. Long River, Canary Yellow Canoe, River of Light – Gordon Lightfoot
    “Picture yourself in a boat on a river…”

  68. Hold my Hand, it’s a long, long way to the bottom of the river, by delta rae, amazing song

  69. John Hartford…whose life was a river of river songs

  70. “Sweet Afton” Nickel Creek

  71. I like when peace like a river best because it is a hymn
    when peace like a river attendeth my way

  72. Heard this song for the first time by a camp fire… took forever to find it- so good though 🙂
    Drop of Water by Dana Lyons

  73. Here’s a absolutely wonderful river song by the late & great song writer & performer JJ CALE


  74. Songs about Rivers?
    Then you want the life story of a River.
    “River” Bill Staines

  75. Raging River of Fear by Captain Beyond.
    Grantchester Meadows by Pink Floyd.

  76. A couple of great “River” songs, though not in the title:
    Richard Marx- Hazard
    Turnpike Troubadors- Long Hot Summer Day

  77. Elephant Revival – Rogue River
    Son Little – The River
    Leon Bridges – River
    Ibeyi – River
    Bishop Briggs – River

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